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Going underground

The underground is an illusionary label that defies definition. Secretive, exclusive, paranoid, clandestine, mostly male, slightly effective with an ideal for change, anti-mainstream and offering no concessions to commercialism are some of the characteristics that Fred de Vries accredits to the underground.

De Vries is currently researching South African Beat poet Sinclair Beiles at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser). As part of a Wiser fellowship, he has organised a seminar on the underground. “Rather than focusing on Beiles, I thought it would be more interesting to make it bigger than just him, involving the underground in a more general way by covering various aspects of the underground and talking about whether there is still an underground.”

No stranger to the notion of underground, De Vries’s book Club Risiko, about 1980s underground culture in seven international cities, is to be released next month in The Netherlands through Nijgh & Van Ditmar. It is named after the famous club in Berlin where Blixa Bargeld was the bartender and Nick Cave regularly performed.

Theoretically then, De Vries should be qualified to define what the underground is, but he says there isn’t a definition, offering only Frank Zappa’s broad comment, “The mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground”. However, De Vries adds: “There are many unknown bands that are not underground because they’re just not very good. One has to be made to feel that this is something special and different.”

According to De Vries, the underground originates in the French resistance to the Germans during World War II. The term can be traced back to Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote Notes from the Underground in 1864. Following this, there were a number of movements — Surrealism, Dada, Situationists — that might have been but weren’t called underground. The first use of the term in the history books was in 1964, a century after Dostoevsky, in reference to Andy Warhol and his factory. There are big overlaps with avant-garde and counter-culture, but there’s a core that is called underground that doesn’t really have a good definition. It wouldn’t be underground if you could define it, and as soon as someone is labelled underground, they’re not underground anymore.

The seminar will aim to tackle some of these thorny issues that seem to self-efface and contradict each other when defining a contemporary cultural underground. Questions to be raised include whether a cultural underground still exists and whether the Internet and financial constraints are destroying it in the contemporary world. A more relevant issue to be raised is the existence of a black cultural underground in South Africa.

With the underground always resisting media exploitation, the seminar will also be an interesting conjunction between the academic and underground worlds. Even though speakers at the seminar such as local academic Michael Titlestad are very knowledgeable about the underground, it doesn’t often come across in their academic work, according to De Vries.

“Funnily, all the Wiser people were worried that people would think it’s about the political underground and that it would draw the wrong crowd because the connotation with ‘underground’ is the Eighties, exile and the ANC. So, I’m quite curious to see what reactions we get, what questions people have and how the academia look at the underground and how the underground take to the academics”, said De Vries.

At the seminar, De Vries will discuss the identity of what he has termed as the “underground figure”, referring to his research on Beiles, his book Club Risiko, the Beats and other sources. Generally somewhat of a messianic character who embodies the eternal child, there is a turning point in underground characters’ lives when many collapse and succumb to alcohol or drugs. De Vries quotes underground 1980s filmmaker Richard Kern (Fingered) on this: “Angry young men are very interesting, angry middle-aged men are pathetic”.

De Vries also points out that persistent underground characters don’t have children. “Steve Lake from the anarchist band Zounds said that when you have children, you have to start taking care of them. You need a house where you can stay permanently and you have to start paying taxes and think about schools. Automatically you become more part of the bourgeoisie culture. It’s not a 100% rule but the guys from Bargeld’s band, Laibach, Beiles and more didn’t. William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac had children, but they abandoned them to survive.”

Contentiously, De Vries concludes that “the man who has really ruled the underground is Osama Bin Laden; one can’t beat that as a subversive act”.

On April 19 in the Wiser Seminar Room, sixth floor of the Richard Ward building, East Campus, Wits University. More info e-mail: [email protected] or Tel: 717 4234

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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