“The city doesn’t give a shit about us”: May Day interviews with Alex Smoke & Helena Hauff 30th April, 2015

may-day

The greyness that vomits over Glasgow through most of the year can really get to you; although, there’s some romance to its perpetual blanketed dullness, once the cloud breaks over the “dear green place”, the reactions aren’t necessarily part of some regional ritualised practice. There’s no floral floats, no raising of a May phallus, no burning of cartwheels, or archaic pageantry. But you can be sure that when summer, or the sun appears it will be worshipped!

The invented traditions of May Day have been continually adapted, from the Celts worship of Bel the Sun God, to protestant attempts to curb its supposed empty frivolity and debauchery, to the more contemporary Socialist adoption of May Day as International Workers’ Day. Traces of each iteration remain.

Contemporary May Day, as Eric Hobsbawm noted is “halfway between a ‘political’ and ‘social’ tradition”. A quasi-religious celebration, or demonstration, that rose in synthesis with the growth of labour and socialists movements. Metaphors of plant growth were adopted as symbology, various flowers, a carnation in Austria, red rose in Germany and a poppy in France. The demand for an eight-hour day, the original political impetus for the movement, fell into the background in favour of whatever slogan various national labour movements favoured at the time of the annual event.

So does May Day still retain some kind of interruption of daily life or work-lessness? How do any of these themes of public assembly and labour translate to a Friday club night? Probably nothing, but I thought I’d ask some of the artists performing on May Day their thoughts on pagan rituals, notions of work and the autonomy of art as a refusal of work.

Alex Smoke

Do you have any personal experiences with folk festivals, are there any particular pagan rituals associated with them that you find interesting?

I’ve got no experience with folk festivals but early beliefs are totally fascinating. What’s most interesting is the way in which these beliefs are coming back into mainstream culture. There is a definite reaction to the high-handed dogma of science, and a renewed interest in nature in it’s more total, mysterious sense. Funnily enough I’ve been working towards a new project relating to ritual and early belief so have done a lot of reading on the subject recently. And of course the parallels to dancing in a small dark room at 120 BPM whilst high are no coincidence.

“Mystics and metaphysicians used to acknowledge that everything in life revolved around exceptional moments. […] These moments were festivals: festivals of the mind or heart, public or intimate festivals. Up until now the principle of Festival has stood for a divorce from life… Is this life’s fate?” – Lefebvre

How do you think that this quote could relate to contemporary “moments”, or some comparables between the commune or public convergence that a club can allow? Considering May Day’s pre-christian folk festival origins but also it’s adoption as International Workers’ Day.

Well the fact that life now seems to be solely about earning money by doing a job that you don’t necessarily like, means that those special moments are: a) rarer and b) more important still. Most club nights and modern festivals, whilst communal, are probably still not in the bracket of ‘special’ most of the time as they are so compromised by consumerist society. They are devoted to brands of drink, brands of artist, image and presentation, and not necessarily to the depth of the experience. We have also lost the religious framework that made those original festivals of mystic importance. Of course there are some modern events which aim to recapture that feeling, and for those with their own framework of belief, they can still work a magic on the mind. International Workers Day is a fucking cruel joke. But the house of cards will fall at some point so we’ll just have to wait for the opportunity to help it on its way.

Following on from this, do you think culture has any role in the civic? Or what role do you think the culture(s) you engage with have in the place where you live? Are there any examples you can think of that illustrate this?

Culture can have a massive role in the civic but increasingly it is being put to one side as the civic attains primary dominance. Doing what you’re told, at a time and in a place that is deemed appropriate has become the mantra. But it’s great when an event takes on a life of its own and becomes important to a community, and a focus for action. I think that online culture, in its myriad forms, probably has the most impact these days in forging relationships across divides and creating genuine difference in communities. Music culture has become very controlled and corporate on many levels now so its ability to ferment change in society has been weakened.

‘Let the Spectators become an Entertainment to themselves… so that all will be better united.’ – Rosseau

Do you think this statement regarding “agency in culture against spectatorship” has any comparables with your experience as a DJ, producer and club patron?

The great strength of underground club culture is its leveling effect. Yes there is a DJ/act who is, on paper, the centre of attraction, but actually the whole thing really relies on everyone being in the same mindset with the same focus to be successful. The best nights are when me and the crowd (when I’m playing) or me and the DJ (when I’m dancing) are in the same mode and enjoying the experience as a whole, rather than the obvious performer/spectator divide of EDM for example. I hate being on a stage for that reason. It puts an artificial divide between me and the crowd and places me above them in importance which is wrong. It is communal and only works if both sides are involved fully in the moment.

The aesthetic as a political determinant. Do you think your practise as an artist, your music, or the music you engage with has a political determination?

All too often I think that people pin this stuff on their own work, or the press do, in order to make it sound more important. I am politically and socially minded but I can’t see my work in those terms, especially the club music. I think these things can largely be seen in retrospect, when their place in the whole is more apparent. Many ‘scenes’ are so overloaded with PR, hype and misleading self-mythologising propaganda that I think the genuine motives end up lost.

The autonomy of art as a refusal of work. How does the work you do as an artist and performer compare or contrast with this notion?

In an ideal world I am in full alignment with it, but now and again genuine work creeps in. As I get older though I am increasingly trying to shun the work and focus on the art. The people I most admire are those who have the bravery to follow that to its conclusion, but I still like being able to afford my rent. Creation for creation’s sake is the wine to the dry weavil-riddled bread of corporate-financial thinking. Amen.

Helena Hauff

Do you have any personal experiences with folk festivals, are there any particular pagan rituals associated with them that you find interesting?

‘Walpurgisnacht’ is the one that immediately comes to mind. As a kid I can remember going on holiday to the ‘Harz mountains’ and my mom telling me the story of how all witches came out to dance on the ‘Broken’ on the night of April the 30th. And I loved the idea of that. Nowadays this is transformed into ‘Tanz in den Mai’ where people just go out and get pissed and dance, which I suppose was the basic idea all along.

“Mystics and metaphysicians used to acknowledge that everything in life revolved around exceptional moments. In their view, life found expression and was concentrated in them. These moments were festivals: festivals of the mind or heart, public or intimate festivals. Up until now the principle of Festival has stood for a divorce from life… Is this life’s fate?” – Lefebvre

How do you think that this quote could relate to contemporary “moments”, or some comparables between the commune or public convergence that a club can allow? Considering May Day’s pre-christian folk festival origins but also it’s adoption as International Workers’ Day.

As long as work is organised the way it is people will feel the need to forget about it every now and then. And festivals/moments fulfill this need. Whether it be the pre-Christian agrarian society, the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution or the call centres of today, people will always need to go out and get pissed to forget how truly tragic life is.

Following on from this, do you think culture has any role in the civic? Are there any examples you can think of that illustrate this?

No, it’s a completely different thing, the city doesn’t give a shit about us. They are pretty much indifferent to our actions.

“Let the Spectators become an Entertainment to themselves… so that all will be better united.” – Rousseau

Do you think this statement regarding “agency in culture against spectatorship” has any comparables with your experience as a DJ, producer and club patron?

I think it is really important to get people involved, they are creating the night together with the DJ, it shouldn’t be separate.

The aesthetic as a political determinant. Do you think your practise as an artist, your music, or the music you engage with has a political determination?

I don’t think the music itself is political and I don’t want it to be political either. It’s just tunes, innit? The only political aspect of it is that it is happening on an underground level and therefore bringing like minded people together, creating an atmosphere in which ideas can develop.

The autonomy of art as a refusal of work. How does the work you do as an artist and performer compare or contrast with this notion?

It is work. There is the pure artistic moment of creating music and the two hours of performance but behind that is hours and hours every week of work. And I have to pay my taxes and I have to pay my rent. The big difference is that I can do things on my own terms, and society’s definition of work and success is so different to what I do, though still a form of work it gives you the impression of being a refusal of work, which makes it a statement.

Alex Smoke and Helena Hauff are performing at Huntleys & Palmers May Day party alongside James Holden, Karen Gwyer, Hodge, Pye Corner Audio, Golden Teacher, Hi & Saberhägen