Teknivals as Prototypes for Utopian Imagination
Published in Kajet Journal #2: On Utopias, 2018
I’ve been an active member of a Tekno soundsystem based in the Netherlands and Germany for the past three years. It has become a tradition to spend the summer traveling together and organising parties along the way, independently or on teknivals— non-commercial festivals which reference the European free festival culture of the 1970s and 80s, being almost exclusively focused on the tekno music genre. The word's spelling with a 'k' is to deliberately differentiate the musical style from that of techno, the former generally being characterised by a faster rhythm of 170 to 200 bpm and a pounding repetitive kick drum. While traditional raves might be initiated by a single collective organised around a soundsystem, teknivals are generally occasions for numerous sound systems to link up and collaboratively produce several walls of sound. A teknival might last between three to ten days during which music is played continuously.
It was 2014 when a friend of mine introduced me to the theoretical foundations of freeparty culture after we had visited a freeparty together. Visiting me in Rotterdam he knew of a tekno party in a squatted building in an industrial area outside of the city centre. It was a Saturday evening and as we drove out of the city centre into the industrial area there was less and less life on the streets. We arrived on the street where the squat was supposed to be located and found one warehouse after the other, closed for business on the weekend, of course. Arriving to the squat we suddenly found the lots of cars parked randomly on the street and people hanging out in the parking lot outside of the building that was being brought to life by the sound of a steady and continuous bass. We entered the building and found a number of rooms with people hanging out, chatting and drinking – and a larger space where a large soundsystem was built up in. People were dancing, some of them seemingly resting their heads inside the large horns of the bass speakers and moving repetitively to the equally repetitive, yet complex sound of the music. The music was not particularly loud, to my understanding, but I was thoroughly impressed by the physical impact the music had on me. I could 'feel' the bass, literally. I felt my heartbeat adjust to the tempo of the music, my breath being guided by the pressure of the rhythm in the air. I felt as if the music was physically guiding me, or, carrying a piece of my own weight. After some getting used to this unusual experience, I quickly started embracing it, moving with it and enjoying the interplay between my body and the sound which I experienced as more tangible than ever. It's difficult to put this experience into words. Being trained as a musician from early age, I have a well developed sense of hearing but had never been able to experience sound to such an extend, generally being quite sensitive to physical stimulation. But it was not only the physical experience of sound which left a lasting impression, I also felt comfortable socially. Having had quite uncomfortable experiences with 'club culture' in London and elsewhere including harassment, lots of socially awkward situations and even sexual assault, I was extremely positively surprised by not being approached with 'flirty' attitudes, being stared at while dancing or addressed inappropriately. Instead, I felt genuinely comfortable being around a large crowd of people, some of whom seemed quite friendly, yet, non-intrusive. I felt strangely at peace within the loud, chaotic and uncontrolled mess of a party around me.
This experience stirred my curiosity, not just as a visitor, but also as a critical theorist and a researcher interested in culture at the fringes of society. After my friend left Rotterdam again, we initiated an email exchange imbued with pieces of writing connected to the culture which had produced the complexly intense experience we had shared. What particulalymade an impact upon me and drew me closer to the topic was the 'Tekalogue' – a short, yet prescient document which describes a continuous “battle against a system that wants us to live in a dystopia." and with a resembling kind of impact on me, the 'Freeparty-Clopedia', the 'basic moral code' of freetekno: “Support your local underground and be part of the free. Respect nature and yourself, also others as they will respect you. (…) Respect the building and its surroundings. (…) Thou shall not steal or damage any equipment. You are responsible for everyone's safety and security. It is about music not drugs. There is no room for violence or hate. (...)“
As I started this process of immersion, I became captivated by the phenomenon. Through further research, I came across “Teknival and the emancipatory potential of technology”, a text written by Alexis Wolton and published by Datacide, a magazine for noise and politics that aims to go beyond the commercial. Here, the author proposes a concise definition of what the term 'teknival' embodies:
“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.“
Contemporary freeparty culture has its roots in the rave culture of the 90s. The collective of travelers organised around the Spiral Tribe soundsystem set up the first teknival as a free music and art festival in the summer of 1993 in Northern France. Since then, the collective has become an emblematic icon for the contemporary freeparty endeavour with an active attitude towards traveling and DIY culture, In 1993, Mark Spiral wrote: “Teknival has become something of a haven and testing ground for new ideas. (…) Teknival is one of the very few free spaces left.“ Today, freeparties continue to be part of an underground culture which, depending on its surrounding social context, has more or less freedom to expand. In Western Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, France and Spain, freeparty culture represents an essential part of the underground culture not being necessarily clearly visible in the mainstream.
Rather interestingly, the European teknival scene has been moving Eastward since the 90s, from France to Germany, and further on to the Czech Republic and Poland, and, more recently, to Bulgaria and Romania. In fact, when retrospectively comparing my experiences with freeparties in the Netherlands and Germany, the Czech Republic freeculture seems to have grown to become more than a mere socio-marginal phenomenon. Here, the subculture has entered the mainstream, and continues to be part of the general cultural landscape, with big teknivals such as Czechtek, an event that has gathered tens of thousands of attendants at a time. As opposed to the teknivals of the 90s and early 2000s however, most teknivals today don't necessarily take place in the frame of illegality. Rather, organisers take advantage of the privatisation of land and favourable laws established after the fall of communism in the former Eastern bloc. As powerfully enforced as they may be in Western contexts, regulations concerning noise and the consequent disturbances of peace, as well as laws regulating public events or assemblies on private property are less restrictive in many Eastern European countries. In preparation of large teknivals, such as Czechtek or Space Piknik, Czech organisers commonly rent a suitable property for a few days, taking jurisdiction out of the hands of regulating forces such as the police.
Hedonism and Revolution
Christoph Fringeli brings forth an interesting standpoint regarding the inherent connection between hedonist attitudes and the potential of achieving revolutionary purposes by looking back at the political struggles in the last century. “Only by developing pleasures and following our desires will the revolution even become a possibility.“ His thesis departs from Franz Jung’s point of view on how revolutionary potential stems from dissatisfaction: “The state of this dissatisfaction unlocks the arsenal of revolution, the weapons and means for revolution, the source of strength of the motoric antagonism and the collective movement of contradiction, and the aim of revolution: Happiness.“
Fringeli understands the techno rave scene of the 90s “as a possible proletarian counterculture“, which he describes as “much more than any “straight“ political direction. We saw in it the possibilities of self-organisation, collectivity and pursuit of pleasure in the counterculture around soundsystems, anonymous white label records and illegal parties.“ Thus, he builds his case by contextualising the ambitions of the 90s rave scene with revolutionary political projects and further describes the scene’s development over time as having had potential “for a moment (...), but not more, and it is now lost.“ I can empathise with Fringeli's reflections on the (lost) potential of freeparties.
In a similar manner,“Tek it up”— another prophetic Datacide article which has grown into a manifesto for freeparty culture —, departs from the premise that unknown “at their best, teknivals are a powerful expression of common creative impulses. When a teknival ends and people go their separate ways, ideas and action can spread in many directions.“ Being non-commercial and non- profit-oriented, Freetekno is not only about escapism from the harsh reality of capitalist social structures. (Though, it partly is.) Freetekno is also there in order to liberate individuals and to open up possible alternative realities with emancipating social values at their core.
While at teknivals, I've experienced a reality where I get up in the morning, not to go to work, but to dance and have fun instead. No borders or fences were separating spaces, no regulations applied, whereas — perhaps most liberating — no social hierarchies separated me from others. Alternative economies emerged spontaneously and issues were solved directly between people—no police, no representatives. If a person needed help, others reacted with direct solidarity actions instead of ignorance or goodwill and charity. Over and above, all of this was framed within the continuous repetition of a comforting rhythm in the air which became an acute component of how you receive the environment after a day or two—a physical experience of controlled chaos.
Freetekno, to me, is a glimpse into what self-empowerment can be. Freeparties bring together individuals who choose hedonism over generalised social norms and solidarity over egocentric profit seeking. Thus, freeparties are prototypes for utopian imagination and experimentation. Those who identify with freetekno as a form of anti-culture often understand themselves as politically empowered individuals who create their own social freedom. To me, freeparty culture is deeply connected with squatting culture, both bearing situationist characteristics of self-empowerment. In fact, I understand freeparties as Alain Badiou’s Events. He describes the concept as the sudden and drastic appearance of a social element which had been excluded previously. It was Andrew Robinson, who described Badiou's concept of Event as “[a rupture of] the appearance of normality, [that] opens a space to rethink reality from the standpoint of its real basis in inconsistent multiplicity.” Badiou defines social reality as “inconsistent multiplicity” by which he refers to it as being unintelligibly complex and chaotic by nature. Robinson goes further by describing 'Normality' as “[t]he order of a situation—(...) the dominant 'ideology'”—[which] render the excluded part invisible.” Freeparties therefore are tangible and actually existing Events, genuine moments of revolt and insurgency, as they possess the potential to rupture the dominant social order.
I've come to reflect upon freeparty culture through the lens of critical theory by encountering Claire Tancon's analysis of the phenomenon of Carnival. To me, the phenomena of Freetekno and Carnival are deeply analogous, since they both involve the expression of desires and the creation of alternative social realities on a temporary basis. In her seminal text 'Carnival to Commons', Tancons describes the manifestation of Carnival as an event of exception. Departing from Konstantin von Eggert’s Financial Times article titled “Carnival spirit is not enough to change Russia,”, Tancons’ tackles the idea that “One cannot sustain [the movement] on Carnival spirit alone.” Opposing von Eggert's dismissal of Carnival as insignificant, Tancons lays out her perspective on the phenomenon—events within which oppressed individuals make use of the momentary opportunity to express and live their socio-political desires. Thereby, participants create a culture of temporary freedom. Elsewhere, Tancons describes Carnival as a “potent form of political protest”, by placing carnivalesque happenings within anarchist political activities. activities In this context, she speaks of Raoul Vaneigem and his book The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967) that “fueled the May 1968 student movement with what could be called Carnival liberation theory. Presciently, Vaneigem wrote that ‘a strike for higher wages or a rowdy demonstration can awaken the Carnival spirit,’ and ‘revolutionary moments are Carnivals in which the individual life celebrates its unification with a regenerated society.’” From personal experience, freeparties produce such moments of unification. Acting as events of exception, individuals explore a sense of communal freedom which everyday society only too rarely gives space to.
Essentially, freeparties are hedonistic enactments of Hakim Bey's concept of 'Temporary Autonomous Zones' (TAZ). In Tancons’ above mentioned essay where Occupy Wall Street is correlated with a political Carnival, she also references Bey’s work: “While the word ‘Carnival’ is not to be found in TAZ, ‘occupy’ is. On this subject, Bey believes that ‘because the State is concerned primarily with Simulation rather than substance, the TAZ can ‘occupy’ these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite a while in relative peace.’” Consequently, for Tancons, TAZ are suggestive of “guerrilla tactics” applied in order to subvert the status quo and allow for the practice of social experiments. Bey's text is written as a poetic manual for Situationist experiments. It doesn't clearly describe 'how to' set up a temporary autonomous zone, but it hints at possibilities and opportunities for creating moments of freedom. Nevertheless, besides anarchist activists, Bey’s idea of free space is also used by squatting movements as well as the Tekno scene.
Not long ago, I had a meeting with the Dutch contemporary artist Erik van Lieshout. We spoke about his politically charged work, particularly about a piece called ‘AVL Mundo’, where van Lieshout declared a squatted piece of land as a free, independent state which provided a frame for experiments in life outside of everyday capitalism. For him, the process of squatting has a myriad of implications: [squatting] a piece of land and then building housing, restaurants, a workshop for weapons and bombs, an abortion clinic and all kinds of stuff.” Instead of trying to obtain permits and licenses, “[w]e just created it. We built things on the squatted piece of land and wanted to be independent. We had a power plant and water purification systems. We also decided that there we were not going to have any rules on that piece of land. You could do whatever you wanted.” Going more into detail about the practice of anarchism at AVL Mundo, van Lieshout did not hold back: “I didn't see people going crazy, fucking dogs or anything like that. Some babies were born, but nothing really bad happened. It was more like a party.” Further on, van Lieshout spoke about the importance of understanding the setup of a free state as a development towards self-sufficiency, as a “rebellious act.” Freeparties generally follow a theoretical ethical code which puts the practice of general respect as well as individual responsibility at its core, but there certainly aren't any clear 'rules' to follow. In a way, freeparties seek a similar kind of freedom as van Lieshout was looking for when he set up the free state.
There's one particular memory that can prove extremely valuable given the context I tried to formulate above. Back in 2015, friends from the Netherlands and Germany got together to travel East and organise smaller parties along the way in Leipzig and Prague together with befriended soundsystems. Traveling with a 12t truck which fit 9 passengers and a reasonably large soundsystem, we arrived at Space Piknik — in that year situated in the Karlovy Vary district in Western Bohemia, Czech Republic and one of the biggest teknivals in Europe—, with the idea to organise our own area. Teknivals are generally organised openly allowing for any traveling soundsystem to join. The festival took place at an old military base which the organisers had rented for a few days. The property was dominated by old military warehouses, multi-story residential buildings and lots of concrete surrounding them. Trees had started growing in-between, slowly taking over the abandoned property. In Western Europe, properties like this one would rarely be owned privately.
We were one of the first groups to arrive on the property and decided to choose the spot where we'd set up the soundsystem by scouting the area in pairs or alone. After about an hour of exploration, we met up again and discussed the spots that we felt most attracted to. We quickly established that most of us couldn't imagine dancing on hot and dusty concrete. There were a few options, like warehouses or grass-sided paths between buildings which we could have chosen to occupy, but we ultimately decided to set up in a meadow surrounded by trees which seemed just the perfect size . Here, we found a beautiful spot which would naturally provide shade and comfortable ground for walking barefoot. We parked our truck between trees by the meadow and set up camp.
The following day, some of us put up the soundsystem while others delved into the area further. More collectives started to arrive and walls of speakers were being set up on the concrete-lined areas in-between derelict buildings. Out of curiosity, we entered the few former residential blocks left on site and explored the premises. Discovering that the property used to function as a mental institution after it had been abandoned by military forces, we found rooms in their authentic set-up, such as as dormitories, spaces entirely filled with pieces of clothing, broken furniture, children's drawings on the walls, handmade clay sculptures in glass display cabinets. Amazed by the abandoned treasures we'd found, we started dragging objects to our hidden spot in the forest. Out of pieces of furniture and doors together with the large gas stove and water canisters we had brought, we built our cooking area at a distance from the soundsystem which was to cater for hundreds in the coming days. Using trees and materials from the buildings, we built a bar next to the soundsystem and fitted it with fridges and other equipment which we had brought with us. Our area started to take shape. We used rather absurdly looking objects and drawings we'd found to decorate the speakers, as a collage of seemingly random content started to unfurl around our soundsystem. One of the entrances to the area became the highlight of our design endeavours: We tensioned a rope between two trees at a height of about 2,50m and attached old-fashioned, semi-transparent sheer curtains to it. Our area started to become more trashy and cosy by the minute.
The next day the teknival started. Drumming rhythms became part of the environment. Having chosen a rather hidden spot, the reality of our area seemed entirely different from that of other soundsystems around us. Something felt uncomfortable and agitating about the fact that most visitors dressed alike, most other areas were packed with people, soundsystems had decorated their areas with vacuous imagery common within Tekno contexts, bars were crowded with people waiting in line and stalls selling all kinds of merchandise were lining the paths. ,make itself by very Despite that our area made itself known and was well visited, it never felt as uncomfortably crowded as other large areas of the teknival. During the day, a relaxed atmosphere gave space to people dancing freely, sitting and chatting with friends, lying in the meadow and even making art. At night, the area was busy with people dancing wildly and enjoying themselves. At some point, I had a conversation with a friend involved in a befriended soundsystem. His soundsystem was running another area of the teknival, one of which I felt uncomfortably agitated by. He told me that he was jealous of our freedom to set up our temporary DIY playground instead of a space dominated by the pressure to comply with expectations to generate income to cover for costs of rented equipment and vehicles. We, instead, were driven by our own desire to act, not by the expectations of others.
Epilogue: prototypes of anti-utopia?
Although I am by no means an expert on Tekno culture (since I’ve only been actively involved in the scene for relatively few years), or an expert on Czech culture (since my personal experience is limited to squatting/Tekno culture in this particular context), I believe that the intersection between marginal forms of culture and radical/critical theory can generate a productive incipient platform of discussion. Much more than that, this sort of combination can build up to new prototypes of utopia that can emerge in Eastern European spaces.
Nevertheless, the promise of radically alternative worlds is disintegrating if the genuineness of those involved in this subculture is based on conflicting purposes. In some Czech contexts, for instance, the phenomenon of freeparties has grown into an essential part of mainstream alternative culture, where the alternative ceases to bear any kind of dissident, anti-status quo qualities. Circus Alien, a Prague-based soundsystem and Tekno label, runs a shop in the centre of Prague that sells not just records but also merchandise of their brand ‘Alien DNA’—shirts, sweaters, accessories with decorative prints and slogans. It comes as no surprise that some teknival visitors dress up in what feels like crusty, punky costumes, some even with fake colourful dreadlocks. Just as Carnival is not only 'liberating' as Claire Tancons describes it, but has, depending on socio-cultural contexts, taken the shape of tragic reenactments of excess, teknivals can feel just as lost to desperation and 'idiocracy.' Just as I can't detect a resiliently liberating character of the Carnival as it's practiced in Germany and the Netherlands and can merely view it as an event of momentary overindulgence and liberation for those who are generally trapped in their lives dominated by the capitalist logic, I increasingly lose sight of the free spirited, temporarily autonomous mentality trapped in a crowd of thousands of individuals who tirelessly embody their own quest toward excessive individuality. Although teknival culture is generally based on revolutionary thought, I can't help but see the absorption of anti-culture into capitalism, where capitalism itself is responsible for metabolising formerly dissident forms of culture into a hyper-commercialised mainstream. If not properly understood and practiced, freeparty culture does not only cease to bear utopian valances, but it also becomes inherently anti-utopian. Somehow, the idea of freedom mutated into something else. “When a teknival ends and people go their separate ways,” they might just go back to their 9-to-5 jobs.
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2. K. von Eggert, Carnival spirit is not enough to change Russia, In: Financial Times, March 1, 2012.
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