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Lords of the new church

Tony Herrington

The Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling, site for some of the performances at this year's Le Weekend festival

Why do so many so-called experimental music festivals insist on programming events in goddamn churches? (For recent evidence from the UK, see Sotto Voce, Le Weekend, and the slightly too prosaically named London International Festival of Exploratory Music.) No doubt the acoustics are mind-blowingly reverberant, but then the same could be said of an empty factory or warehouse, and let's face it, in the current era of drastic capitalism there is no shortage of such structures, all ripe for creative, even provocative, repurposing.

By implication if nothing else, the notion of experimental music has always been bound up with radical and ongoing critiques of prevailing and oppressive value systems, and concurrent attempts to erect new humanistic paradigms in their place.

From Luis Buñuel to Lydia Lunch, there is a long and noble history of artists staging performances in churches as acts of subversion, taking the good fight deep inside enemy territory, calling down the walls of the establishment by blaspheming the fuck out of its most sacred strongholds.

But what we are dealing with here is something else again, a minor cultural phenomenon that arrives as a particularly dispiriting consequence of current trends in which postmodern irony conspires with the hubris of curatorial culture and the requirements of public and private funding bodies for ever more 'novel' initiatives, to render meaningless the stuff these events are supposed to be providing new platforms for.

In such a context, moving contemporary experimental music into a church setting is tantamount to an admittance of failure, a betrayal of its original revolutionary stance, an acknowledgment that the old order is still standing so we might as well give up and move right on in alongside it.

In effect it is the latest example of a bourgeois art class nullifying vernacular modes of expression by once again giving priority to aesthetics over politics.

Plus, like all sites dedicated to supernatural idolatry, churches give me the creeps.

I can appreciate why the curators and producers of experimental music events might want to escape the conventions of the proscenium arch, and find new contexts in which to present music whose practice, among other things, is predicated on proposing new social relations (which is one reason for the rise of the gallery environment as an alternative if somewhat compromised space in which to present new sound works). But replacing an arch with an altar is no way to go, frankly.

More radical, empathetic and imaginative thinking on the part of the curators, and less collusion on the part of musicians, is required if we are to find sympatico spaces in which to present music that exists in revolutionary opposition to the forces that look to crush our very souls with ever more mediated and policed spectacles, from The X Factor to the kind of middlebrow entertainment packages masquerading as genuine culture that are programmed by major art spaces in just about every city in the Northern hemisphere.

In the aftermath of the UK coalition government’s systematic dismantling of the structures that were erected to democratise this country's post-war society, raising such a seemingly minor issue might seem like decadent pissing in the wind. But as the good Lord knows, the devil resides in the detail.

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