Teknival and the emancipatory potential of technology

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This text is based on a talk given at the One-shot Art Festival in Berlin, October 2007 as part of an evening organised by Datacide that explored the theme: noise, politics, autonomy and recuperation.

The purpose of this text is to historify the Teknival/Free-Party scene as belonging to a history which views technology as having emancipatory potential. This history extends back to the 1930s when Walter Benjamin along with Bertolt Brecht produced a penetrating analysis of the potential offered by, the then emerging, technics to provide the tools to change the conditions of cultural production and eventually offer a renewed social configuration. Their legacy has been developed beyond the Teknival scene in various directions and is currently being discussed in Open Source Culture with some parallels to Teknival. There are different layers to this history and it is clear that the Teknival scene did not by any means offer the most advanced analysis of the emancipatory potential offered by technology. Looking at the theories of technology that have emerged, both positive and negative, and placing Teknival among such histories we are able to see some of its shortcomings and begin to discuss future strategies. As in the 90s Capital is consistently recuperating any ruptures that appear to open enough space to begin to redefine the social and technical landscape. Unlike Heidegger’s pathetic suggestion that only a God can save us now, it seems much more likely that a critical theory of technology is going to be of more use if we are to agree that ‘what human beings are and will become is decided in the shape of our tools’ (Feenberg: 2002:3).

1.

Teknival was started by the Spirals [Spiral Tribe] in the Summer of ’93, the first being held on the 23rd of July at Beauvais in Northern France. The idea behind it, as the name suggests, is an independent free festival of techno music and art. […] Teknival has become something of a haven and testing ground for new ideas. […] Teknival is one of the very few free spaces left.

Mark Spiral Datacide 1 Feb 1997

Teknival/Free-Parties as a counter-cultural phenomenon remain, even after more than 15 years of activity, almost entirely beneath the radar as far as mainstream media is concerned. Over the years tens of thousands of people and hundreds of soundsystems have been involved, generating thousands of cultural products.

Teknival as both a word and a concept embodies an intrinsic hybridity. Teknival emerged from the UK as a fusion of different aspects of the underground urban squat scene, the nomadic traveller festival scene and the reggae soundsystem scene, spreading throughout Europe and beyond during the 1990s at a time when a new generation of young people were becoming increasingly politicised and dissatisfied. As a word it exists as a fusion of two other words: tekno and festival, and as a sphere of action broadly involves the interaction of three elements: the use of technology to produce and transmit audio and visual noise, the reclamation of space both psychic and physical, and social interaction. In its most interesting incarnation Teknival is a communal space of possibility that inspires a total experimental attitude, not just toward music and art production but toward all areas of social interaction.

Any attempt to historify this counter culture needs to consider the central role technology played and the attitude taken toward this technology in its development. The Teknival situation revolves around the use of technology: sound systems, vehicles, sound carriers and tools for making and distributing noise all play a role in generating a free-party space. In the mid 90s as the Free-party scene was developing, a tendency emerged that connected the importance of the production of autonomous areas, i.e. ‘free-space’, with the control of the means of creative production and distribution; it attempted to generate a self-organising participatory media paradigm that would reclaim psychic and physical space and “transcend the specialization of the process of production” (Benjamin: 1982:263) of capitalism. Affordable technology had democratised and made possible completely independent media production and distribution. It was now possible to run a mobile media studio from a truck and produce and distribute that media completely bypassing the usual channels. Pirate radio was in full flow and the Internet was opening up the electronic world and new communities. It seemed as if anything would shortly be possible: as Praxis said in 1997

At least in music we should know, after the electronic revolution, anything is possible. And this should be a signal to life. And that’s dangerous! Because it short-circuits Control.
Praxis Newsletter 7

2.

Early discussions of the social implications of technology particularly the impact of computerization on society tended to either view technology as leading to dystopian consequences or optimistically as providing the tools for a techno-utopia, eliminating toil and democratising industrial society. The former view advocated by commentators such as Heidegger argues that technology constitutes a new cultural system capable of restructuring the entire world as an object of control. The system Heidegger describes foresees ‘an expansive dynamic that ultimately overtakes every pretechnological enclave and shapes the whole of social life. Total instrumentalisation is thus a destiny from which there is no escape other than retreat. Only a return to tradition or simplicity offers an alternative to the juggernaut of progress.’ (Feenberg: 2002:162). This is a view that persists today manifesting itself in the Environmentalist and Green Anarchist Milieu.

Tendencies within the Teknival movement recognised technics was controlled by the dominant social hierarchy but rather than retreat viewed technology as a site of social struggle, a source of emancipatory potential. From an Ambush Records Press Release in the late 90s:

[…] it must be recognised that the political relates to a power struggle on a cultural level. What has happened in the last decade or so is that alongside the enclosure of political debate in the public arena and the continuing erosion of social spaces, there has been an outbreak of music that has become the soundtrack of resistance, not just in the outdated sense of people fighting cops in the streets, but also in terms of micro-politics, where the ability to become intensified conveys a rejection of the existing models held out for mass acceptance.

Interaction on a cultural level meant interaction using the most progressive means of cultural production: advanced immanent technological tools. The link between the political and the potential offered by technological artistic practice had already been theorised decades earlier by Benjamin and Brecht.

3.

Engaging with the radical potential of technics in the 1930s Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht attempted to create an emancipatory theory of Art and praxis. Their intention was to develop a set of concepts only useful to a revolutionary communist theory of Art.

Benjamin and Brecht’s positivist attitude towards technology was at odds with previous (and some later) conceptions that saw machines and technology as solely dominatory, as objects of control leading to only one path of development. Benjamin saw in technology flux. Howard Caygill:

Since One Way Street Benjamin had consistently posed the alternative between a concept of experience which responded to changes in technology and one which used technology in order to monumentalise itself. Furthermore he aligned this diagnosis, again as early as 1923 with class struggle.
(Caygill: 1998:95)

Benjamin was quick to see that new technology renewed the possibilities of artistic production, increased the potential for mass participation and reception and could potentially facilitate new social configurations. Benjamin expanded on his ideas of participatory media in his essay the Author as Producer. Recognising that radical content was being assimilated and therefore neutralised if presented in a commercial or high art context, he argued that radical culture should be eroding the traditional divisions between artist and viewer, producer and consumer shifting the focus away from product to the conditions of production.

[…] technical progress is for the author as producer the foundation of his political progress. In other words: only by transcending the specialization in the process of production which, in the bourgeois view, constitutes its order, is this production made politically valuable. (Benjamin: 1982:263)

Brecht’s ideas on the mass participatory potential offered by Radio complimented Benjamin’s approach. Brecht saw in the medium of radio communication the potential for an expanding social network, where everyone could transmit as well as receive. What Benjamin and Brecht had identified was that the use of technology by the dominant hierarchy was one possible outcome. They hoped that by reshaping the distinction between artist and non-artist and increasing mass participation it would be possible to reshape the social landscape.

Participation was encouraged at every level within the Teknival /Free-Party scene. In the same way that Benjamin had attempted to erase the distinction between artist and spectator, Ambush records again:

Ambush see themselves as part of an emerging transversal sub-net of labels, dancers, DJs, zines, party organisers and so on. A sub-net of activity that invites anyone to become involved at their own level, whilst no single level within the evolving process remains more important than the next. Consequently there is a constant dynamic development to this network, which arises from a conscious cross-referencing that produces hybrid forms, mutating like a virus.

The power of participatory media practice has nowhere been as successfully developed as by Open Source Culture. What began in the 80s following Richard Stallman’s publication of the GNU manifesto has today become what the media theorists of the 30s had hoped for: ‘a decentralized, participatory and interactive media utopia’ (Medosch:45 RPM).

Open Source Culture has in many ways developed with a similar set of ideas to the Teknival/Free-Party Scene. Its intention was one of self-management, it wished to open a space of possibility, albeit virtually, and it encouraged participation at any level through a huge community base. The Open Source movement has resulted in many innovations: operating systems, video, graphics and music production software such as Linux, Pure:Dyne, and Gimp. A large portion of the worlds servers run on Apache, PHP and MYSQL, free to own server, dynamic programming and database software, powering incredible communication and education tools such as WordPress, Drupal and Moodle.

But this rise in the participatory media paradigm has been met with the realisation that while theoretically we now have access to everything we still have nothing. As Armin Medosch points out, the economic base remains unchanged. This was also the experience within the Teknival scene. At every stage of development Capital was involved in a process of recuperation. Early on we saw the Teknival name copyrighted (see Datacide 1), music was co-opted and weakened loosing its most radical content. In both the UK and France we saw new laws enacted to deal with the Teknival/Rave Scene; the state delivering brutal Police repression in both France and Czech. Teknival in France has now become state sanctioned, an enclosure,

It became obvious that owning the creative means of production is not enough; participation is not enough. Medosch in 45 RPM:

[…] what is eerie is that each of those steps of democratisation of access which at a different point would have meant a real revolution — a significant change of social relationships which inevitably would have implied a political revolution and not only one of the communication media — was always absorbed by the capitalist system.

This too is apparent in Open Source Culture. Many of the ideas developed and maintained by Open Source programmers have been incorporated into large software companies. Apple, Google and even Microsoft extolling the virtues of opening up code. The internet is powered by people ‘participating’, You-tube, Myspace, Flickr all this content is a gift, free labour; the Web 2.0 phenomenon has been engaged for the last few years, as a number of commentators have drawn attention to, in an enclosure of the knowledge commons.

4.

One of the main arguments made against the Teknival scene having any revolutionary potential is that it can never escape Capital; all action, processes and desires function at best as a microcosmic reflection of Capital. This argument dismisses the possibility of autonomous ruptures as illusory. It insists the rave scene is merely part of the leisure industry, using the tools of Capital as a means of distraction not intensification. Any dreams of self-management are just that.

This view encapsulates an illusory end of history, a reification of the present state of society; technology’s role in this case is as a monumentalising force that fixes conditions, a form of techno-determinism. It follows from this argument that there can never be any alternative to Capitalism and we have no hope of altering the path that the current technics dictates.

In Benjamin’s famous Work of Art essay he begins his analysis by reminding us of Marx’s prediction that ‘one could expect it [Capital] not only to exploit the proletariat with increasing intensity, but ultimately to create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself‘ (Benjamin:1992:212).

Andrew Feenberg develops this idea of potentiality as a critical theory of technology. He argues convincingly against an end of history approach. In his view technology is artificially truncated in modern societies. As Capitalism has developed it has suppressed technology that corresponds to different civilisational alternatives. Technology contains ‘the values of a specific social system and the interests of its ruling classes installed in the very design of rational procedures and machines’ (Feenberg:2002:14). Those who design a building or a machine etc are attempting to imprint their minds on other peoples’ lives: ‘in designing tools they are designing ways of being’ (Feenberg: 2002:183). Feenberg suggests that new paths of development be sought in marginal elements of the existing system. We are not to engage in speculative fantasies nor refuse technological development in favour of a primitivist approach, but should see Capitalism as a starting point that contains within it the dynamics and tools to go beyond it.

[…] technology is not a thing […] but an ambivalent process of development suspended between different possibilities. […] On this view technology is not a destiny but a scene of struggle. It is a social battlefield.
(Feenberg: 2002:15)

Feenberg is interested in the lack of determinacy implied by modern technology. When we look at machines, particularly computers, we see that they are still in development, they are unfinished and this provides the opportunity to reorder technical codes, to recode systems that have militated against the interests of the non-dominant social class.

Armin Medosch seems to have reached similar conclusions in discussing the free software scene. The euphoria of the 90s driven by the possibilities offered by developments in technology focused too greatly on access to technological tools and not on the conditions of production and the technical codes contained within these tools. He suggests that ‘progressive artists should abandon that battlefield that was traditionally seen as content and focus on unravelling the system from within by conducting a more rigorous analysis of those systems and finding ways of using their properties against them. While the focus on new tools and instruments that dominated the first decade of the internet was a necessary step, now it is maybe time for more radical DIY strategies which do not only focus on the advanced tools and concepts of the free software scene but on the ways those tools are socially embedded and collectively used’ (Medosch: 45RPM)

5.

The free-party/Teknival scene that existed in the 1990s, and of course continues to exist now but within a different set of conditions, should be linked into a history that sees in technology liberatory potential, a history that attempts to use technical innovations to open spaces of possibility in which to bring an as yet unrealised future into the present.

As a moment in this history the Teknival/Free-Party Scene clearly failed to reconfigure the social landscape. It was one of a number of currents that emerged in the 90s that developed a conditions specific critique seeing in immanent technology the potential for an alternative path of development.
The most forward thinking discussions about the possibilities offered by advanced tools have taken place in open-source culture, but this is also where we see recuperation in action.

It’s become obvious that being able to transmit our own signals, create networks and distribute media isn’t enough. The indeterminate character of technology has, however, yet to be fully explored and it is here that energy needs to be concentrated, in identifying alternative configurations and systems of possibility.

Critical Noise October 2008

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter (1982) The Author as Producer in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader Edited by Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt: Continuum

Benjamin, Walter – (1992) Illuminations: Pinnacle

Caygill Howard (1998) Walter Benjamin The colour of Experience, London: Routledge

Feenberg, Andrew (2002) Transforming Technology: University of Chicago

Herbert Marcuse (1982) Some Social Implications of Modern Technology The Essential Frankfurt School Reader Edited by Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt

Armin Medosch (2007) 45 RPM / Revolutions Per Minute – Radio Art Histories Remixed, Maxi Single Version Available Online at http://ung.at/cgi-bin/twiki/view/Main/RevolutionsPerMinute

Armin Medosch (2007) The Next Layer or: The Emergence of Open Source Culture Available Online at http://ung.at/cgi-bin/twiki/view/Main/TheNextLayerDraft

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  • 1 Tortugan tower blocks? Pirate signals from the margins | Cindytalk // Sep 10, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    […] Prenestino as part of the Electrode 2009 Festival. The text is intended as a companion piece to ‘Teknival and the emancipatory potential of technology’, published in Datacide 10, which looked at the use of technology in the Free Party/Teknival scene […]

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