Into a brew of contradictions and possibilities known as the here-and-now, the members of the ambient house sound system, ULTRA-RED and the PUBLIC WORKS ADMINISTRATION, present the after-hours club PUBLIC SPACE. At the very beginning, the question is asked, where can we go after four years of bird sounds? (One could possibly go as far back to 1975 with Steve Hillage's Rainbow Dome Musick,1 or even Eric Satie three decades earlier.)
The situation in Los Angeles presents its own set of conditions and questions. First and foremost, a chill-out club requires something to chill-out from. From what? Over the past two years the underground scene has steadily receded from a mass populist movement to the privacy of our own homes with loft parties, smaller clubs and private soirees--evidence of the annihilation of any public space in Los Angeles. As anyone who has read Mike Davis' City of Quartz2 can verify, public space is a terrifying concept in a police state, particularly the police state known as LA. Hence the omnipresence of the marketplace. Besides the groves of Griffith Park, Los Angeles possesses no safe ground for people to gather that is not regulated and organized by commerce. A city such as Santa Monica thinks it does its citizenry a big favor when it pours millions of dollars into the Third Street Promenade pedestrian shopping district. Studio City gives us City Walk. And West Hollywood grooms Melrose as LA's outdoor shopping mall. Imagine a city where the public gathers in a piazza, or a plaza, a city-managed free-zone where people can meet outside the demands of commerce. The concept seems as unnatural as traveling to a mall only to read a book. Of course with such a rigidly defined use of public areas it is no wonder that spaces dedicated to assembling large numbers of people outside market economics is a threat. And when that population is young people the threat is multiplied ten-fold.
Keep in mind, we live in a city that fears the spontaneous mobilization of large numbers of people. In the early days of Los Angeles, unions and union organizing was illegal. People were jailed and killed by the LAPD for attempting to unionize workers. As late as the 1960s, labor activists were considered a public threat. The same paranoia that criminalized the self-determination of workers, brought harassment and brutality against LA's Chicano, black and gay/lesbian movements. And should a young person believe him or herself immune from this sort of control, keep in mind the example of California Institute of the Arts. Originally located near downtown, the college made a panicked move to Valencia when students began to mobilize and become active in local movements of social protest.3 Today, gang truces are attacked by law enforcement, youth leaders are harassed if they show any advances toward political activism and, through the bankrupting of education, young people are denied the histories that may radicalize them.
Imagine the consequences of knowing the histories of the Black Panthers, the Chicano Moratorium, the Lavender Left and the student movements? Even more so, imagine the potential for real social change if that education occurred among a group already engaged in political action. Again we ask the question, from what are we attempting to chill out?
It is no coincidence that the decimation of the underground culture occurred at just the moment that Latino/as, blacks, whites, gays, straights, bis were beginning to achieve an awareness of their strength when assembled under the same roof--grooving to a similar frequency. All the rhetoric of unity served only to disguise the truth of strength in diversity. (Sooner or later, unity becomes another word for homogenization which results in the same violence to conform to white, middle-class, heterosexist norms. That sort of violence is never liberating, particularly if one is none of the above.) Imagine the power of a group of people mobilized, not by their homogeneity, but by their affinity--by the sheer power of their desire to be together. Consider the possibilities if that group of people began organizing themselves in the midst of action, rather than waiting to act until they were organized.
Sounds utopian does it not?
It becomes a sad state of affairs when our goals and aspirations become redefined by powers who stand to lose the most from our efforts. And then we, foolishly, accept those cynical definitions and thus abandon our vision. This should anger us--push us to come together against the language and the power which feeds on our culture and then sells it back to us devoid of truth and energy. As long as we have purchasing power to keep the merchandise moving, as long as we are an exploitable demographic, then we are noticed. (What about all those who haven't the purchasing power?) But, should we dare to expend our resources on something that might actually change the face and soul of our culture, at that moment we are denigrated, stripped of political and cultural power and written off as X-pendible.
Where is the resistance to this? What has the underground industry (and it is an industry) offered as resistance to this commodification? Still, we ask, what is it we are chilling out from?
Onto this current social plain, we open PUBLIC SPACE. We the promoters and artists behind PUBLIC SPACE make no apologies for our aesthetics, and no excuses for our politics. PUBLIC SPACE is for ideas, human energy and physical contact. Pleasure is our greatest resource. Not a sentimental, commodifiable pleasure (sorry, Madonna)--but the corporeal experience of being--of being in resistance. The examination of all that writes itself upon our flesh: the pain and the ecstasy. It is all pleasurable because it is all a matter of being together.
As a collective body we possess the possibility to radically rewrite our world, and thus, remake ourselves (in that order). PUBLIC SPACE is not like other ambient lounges where the number one objective is escape. Escape from what? From our surroundings? From our friends and loves? From our pain? From our pleasure? Escape from the very vessels of our experience--our bodies? PUBLIC SPACE is an about-face in chilling out. PUBLIC SPACE is organized around the belief that when two objects come in contact the encounter produces sound waves. This is true ambient music: the energy produced by two or more bodies: what the Jewish mystics called, the Shekhinah.
It is up to us collectively to decide what kind of energy should be produced. Either way, that energy and its accompanying sound-waves are irrepressible and radically embedded in the network of all our lives. Ambient music is the context in which we live: amplified, broadcast, interpreted--for the purposes of transformation.
"Entering a public space" was first published on May 6, 1994 in the inaugural issue of Contact, the 'zine of the Los Angeles ambient/electronic music club Public Space. The article was reprinted in issue 6 of Contact.
1 London: Virgin Music LTD., 1979.
2 Mike Davis, City of Quartz (NY: Vintage Books, 1992).
3 Ibid., p. 68.