2016 Social Change Colloquim Goes Punk
By Aria Bracci, Mary Margaret Hogan, & Emma Hayward | Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Aria Bracci, Mary Margaret Hogan, & Emma Hayward
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
On April 8, the UMass Amherst Libraries hosted their 11th annual Social Change Colloquium entitled “Documenting Punk.” The first session, “At the Library: Collecting Punk” placed in conversation three women of distinct punk backgrounds: Lisa Darms, senior archivist at NYU’s Fales Library and founder of the Riot Grrrl Collection; Ramdasha Bikceem, creator of the 1990s zine GUNK that traced feminist manifestations throughout skateboarding, punk, and racial communities; and Sara Marcus, author of the book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.
The three panelists discussed their own contributions to and views on Riot Grrrl, the underground feminist movement of the late 20th century that was largely orchestrated by punk music, community meetings, and the distribution of zines. They collectively addressed the movement’s breadth and rejection of capitalistic values—“Donald Trump is not punk,” said Marcus, relating to the money-heavy private interests that punk fundamentally opposes—as well as the trouble that comes with attempting to institutionally archive its intricacies.
In the Q&A session, one audience member wondered how the act of archivization introduces the (potentially problematic) element of celebrity to punk’s remembrance, since the scene consisted of “a whole lot of people who were important to each other but weren’t necessarily known by all.” Marcus explained that the title of her book purposely excludes names like Kathleen Hanna (and her former band, Bikini Kill) particularly to reverse the idea that relatively famous bands, particularly because they were relatively famous, can define the punk movement in its entirety.
Even through fears of erasure and inaccessibility—since, as Bikceem pointed out, historicization of personal matters often becomes too distant and filtered in the hands of others, especially at an institution as prestigious as NYU—the resounding sentiment was that documentation is important. “As activists, we can use the archives to learn and not recreate the same mistakes that are perpetuated in activist communities,” said Darms. “You’re also going to learn techniques for disseminating your ideas,” an integral component of participating in the anarchist, organizing power of the punk scene.
But perhaps most central was the question of identity. Darms described her efforts to collect materials that more accurately document people of color, but she posited that perhaps we “don’t want to cover up this lack,” both for the purpose of accuracy and the ability to make informed criticism of the movement retroactively. “The lack of representation, in a way, represents a part of Riot Grrrl,” she said, “but you also don’t want to perpetuate it.”
“I’m footnoted as the black Riot Grrrl,” said Bikceem, “but I wasn’t the only brown person.” However, the task of historicizing identity can just as easily fall to the opposite extreme, where minorities are lumped together in documentation. Bikceem was not the only person of color, but she emphasized that she—as a feminist, zine creator, and, most importantly, as an individual—is not like every other person of color in the movement and shouldn't be remembered as such. After all, as Marcus concluded, historiographic work is, at its best, a means of “finding, resurrecting, and sketching agency.”
The second session, entitled “The Rest is Propaganda,” featured American music critic Byron Coley and singer, poet, and self-empowerment speaker Lydia Lunch. Growing up in Northern Jersey, Coley’s punk revelation spawned from collecting records and heading into New York City on the weekends. His writing career picked up once a mutual friend got him a connection to New York Rocker, and the rest is history. Forty years later, Coley has written for numerous publications, including Forced Exposure, Boston Rock, and Take It!
Lydia Lunch, according to the Boston Phoenix, is one of the ten most influential performers of the 1980s. At 16, she moved to New York City, where she eventually founded the band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Here, she began to explore the innovative mixture of spoken word and political prowess, taking part in the city’s no-wave music scene.
In this panel, the pair highlighted the archives of the music scene of the 1970s and ‘80s, though many other subjects were covered. Coley is notable. “As a collector I’ve always been really interested in the symbolic value the item holds to me,” said Coley, who is known for his archive collections and documentations from the music scene in New York of this era. Ranging from gig flyers to recordings and his personal correspondents, Coley kept these items around to keep a timeline of his own life. He remarked, “without these items, it’s as if I didn’t exist.” He continued by explaining that most artifacts or memorabilia from this period are hard to find because they were often casualties of evictions or exchanges for drug money. He holds his dated correspondences tightly, as it is very difficult to pinpoint the chronology of these archives. Coley chuckled, “Everyone was just so wasted.”
Prior to her side of the discussion, Lunch made a clarification, “I’m not punk. Well, I’m more punks than you, punks. I’m pre-riot girl. I’ve just been protesting everything my whole life.” She utilized her band as a platform to antagonize the public at large and considered their lyrics bullets, her mouth a machine gun. After this clarification, she explained that she has always thoroughly documented her adventures during her experience in the no-wave movement. “At age 12, I had a calling, and I had to document my personal insanity and the political insanity that was happening at this time,” Lunch explained. She acknowledged that most paraphernalia of this era is often simply available online, but she believes there is importance in physically meeting these items. Lunch exclaimed, “I want all my collections to be available to all, yes, but I also want people to be able to smell and feel them. That’s why we love old books.”
The third session of the day saw a conversation between historians Michael Fournier and Dewar McLeod on how punk came to be a part of their lives, and how to situate that within a larger framework of study. The panel was moderated by Brian Bunk, who began by asking the panelists to consider how they navigate the personal aspect of punk with their academic work on the topic.
McLeod introduced himself as a social historian and described his work as focusing on those relegated to the fringes of the punk movement--those, like himself, who listened to the music, enjoyed the zines, but may have never been considered fully part of punk. He described his personal journey into punk as being academic; “I started this in grad school,” he said, “and as far as I know, no other working professional historian had written about punk...and so I started there.”
It is with this in mind that he noted his primary point of study: “I really didn't want to focus on the geniuses, and the creative ones...I wanted the latecomers, the posers, the jocks who were pretending on weekends, and those kinds,” McLeod said, highlighting the multiple facets of the punk movement. He said he was more interested in “the people who just were sort-of tangentially [punk], went to some shows, absolutely identified with it, read the zines, bought the music--but you've never heard of them.”
His book, Kids of the Black Hole; Punk Rock in Post-Suburban California, grapples with these issues and more as he looks at the specific cultural moment of California punk and places it into a broader historical context, aligning it with other social and cultural movements.
Holyoke Community College Professor Michael Fournier introduced himself next. He described his intimate understanding of punk from his childhood, when he moved from the Boston suburbs to rural New Hampshire and found himself turning to punk magazines found during lunch periods in the library. As he worked his way to punk through what little material he had at his disposal, he tells the audience that he found himself feeling lost and intimidated by the hardcore scenes that existed near him, introducing questions of punk gatekeeping and how different subcultures work within the scene. Then, he says, he came across The Minutemen and latched on; this was a kind of music that, though not hardcore punk, made sense to him. Or, rather, music that demanded he make sense of it. One couldn’t help but be impressed by Fournier’s description of tracking down the lyrics to Minutemen songs, and then tracking down the authors of those lyrics to learn what they mean.
Delving into the navigation of tensions between the personal and the academic, McLeod made it clear that his relationship to punk hasn’t always been straightforwardly personal. He clarifies that his interest in the scene, while preceding his formal study of it, didn’t situate “punk” as an identity for him until much later in life. McLeod laughed at how, in grad school, he would dress in much the same fashion as he had for the day’s event: tie, button up, jacket--a polished professional. He did not appear “punk” in the traditional sense. “For professional legitimation I did not want to be identified in any way with [punk], but I also for scholarly attachment had that idea,” he tells the audience, discussing his trouble in striking that personal/professional balance as a young scholar, while taking up questions of what it means to love your subject of study when “professional detachment” is the benchmark for legitimacy.
Like Fournier, he would read punk magazines cover-to-cover, and, in doing so, experienced much of punk through that lens--a lens of viewership, of the documentation of punk both at the time and after. “For me, punk was the avenue into the rest of the world; it became a filter.” McLeod says, explaining that he discovered so much of what makes up his life and interests through his engagement with punk, noting that magazines and recordings played a crucial role in his engagement with the scene, and thus, the world.
This brought into the conversation the difficulties in documentation. Both panelists discussed problems they’d come across in their endeavors; from escaping the canned answers of tired punk superstars, to retrieving primary documents from collections abandoned, lost, or purposefully disposed of, to understanding the clumsy writing of fan-produced zines--it was pitfall after pitfall in gathering this kind of knowledge. And then there was the question of representing that in an accurate way.
Both McLeod and Fourtier made a strong point to emphasize the sheer variety of punk subcultures that exist, as well as noting the danger in condensing such a diverse set of experiences. Each wrote their works about very specific historical moments and places, using specificity to narrow the scope and maximize the accuracy.
“I don’t think punk rock is a monolith,” Fournier concluded, “there’s room for as many voices as there are voices to be heard.”