J.A.P. -- Music for an angry mob -- 04.21.03
Music for an angry mob
(also at www.journalofaestheticsandprotest.org)
Grey Filastine Interviewed by Lex Bhagat
Seattle Washington, late night 6/25/02 after an Infernal Noise Brigade rehearsal.
The Infernal Noise Brigade is a marching drum battery and street performance group activated by massive political and cultural uprisings.
Tactics. Tactics are the polemical stage of the game...
We are a tactical mobile rhythmic unit consisting of a majorette, medic, tactical advisers, rifle twirlilng contingent, flag corps, sound generating kart, vocalists, horns, and between 8 and 12 percussionists.
An efficiently hierarchised army can win a war, but not a revolution; an undisciplined mob can win neither.
It is our intention to be a soundtrack for insurrection.
We know how cruelly absent tactics have been from most popular uprisings...
Rendering ideology obsolete, we practice the politics of pleasure and subversion on the streets. We are not interested in chanting dogmatic slogans, nor is there a banner behind which we all wish to march.
-From the INB Manifesto, availably at infernalnoise.org
-From Raoul Vaneigem Revolution of Every Day Life
Lex: Could you begin by telling me a bit about your relationship to the Infernal Noise Brigade?
Grey: My personal relationship? I started the group by calling together some people about two months in advance of the WTO meeting that was here in Seattle. I just had a feeling that something big was going to happen. I knew that it would need a strong soundtrack, and the ability to move people around in the streets without barking through bullhorns; to do it in a more fluid manner, to be able to just GO and bring a few hundred people from here to there, just because musical energy is powerful.
I consulted with a few other people from the Direct Action Network (DAN) - one person in particular - about the possibility of doing something autonomously but still working with them a bit. We had one person who observed all DAN?s spokescouncils to gather information so we could be in tandem with them, but we wanted to maintain some autonomy, partly because we didn't agree with the action guidelines that they were proposing. We didn't want to be controversial and argue about them. We thought, ?let's just let them make their infrastructure, and we'll help out and be appreciated for what we can offer.? And, also because we were making a lasting organization.
Lex: You were planning the INB as a long-term project even then?
Grey: Even at that time, we knew that there were a lot of applications for a radical street performance group, whether it is for debaucherist purposes, like Burning Man or warehouse parties, or our annual New Year's Procession. We knew it would be useful to create this group for the future, for political events and for our own pleasure.
Now we've separated a bit and have two uniforms- one for political events, one for cultural or social events.
Lex: Different colors?
Grey: Yeah, different color clothes and flags. The green and black is for political actions; for the non-political events it?s orange, black, and silver. We keep the fur hats for both.
The two uniform system developed because our initial uniform, the green and black, is very militant and seems inappropriate at parties or festivals. After much debate, we settled on emergency orange, mostly because we found interesting ways of using flexible road signs as integral parts of our clothing. The City of Seattle donates many of these signs to us late at night.
Lex: Cool. At the WTO, were you the only folks not working directly with DAN?
Grey: Definitely not. You probably know DAN's plan. There was the Convention Center in the middle, and they divided the surrounding city into a pie. People were responsible for blocking the different sections.
Groups were agreeing to be a part of the DAN and to take a slice of the pie to block. We were NOT agreeing to either, but were agreeing to help out in any way we could. So, we were kind of an autonomous unit to help out and move people to those different slices. There was a bit of contention. There was a group calling for a Reclaim the Streets that was basically a black bloc. This was one of the first black blocs of the recent era, as no one had really pulled one off in the United States in a while.
It kicked off at 11:11 from Westlake Center, and we were going to hook up with that. We had every intention of doing that, but we decided that the convention center blockades were more important. It's only that we wanted to support the barricades that we didn't join the Black Bloc. DAN was not down with that Black Bloc forming.
Lex: And what were Black Blocs?
Grey: Have you read George Katsiaficas? His book, Subversion of Politics, is a history of some European direct action movements. The Autonomen, Red Brigades, that whole radical European history, from Germany especially.
Black Blocs were a European tactic, especially in Berlin, of having large groups of people, all wearing black, all concealed. It's the Zebra theory. If you have 100 people, all wearing black, all wearing hoods and bandanas, one person or a group of people can engage in property destruction, or engage the police, and then melt back into the group and become effectively invisible. That's the THEORY behind the Black Bloc.
Lex: What do you think of that?
Grey: It can work. Sure.
Lex: Even when the police outnumber the protesters? That's the thing, for me. In New York, the police often outnumber the protesters.
Grey: Yeah, and it gets stopped. Then all you are is the most conspicuous person. You can be six or twenty of just the most conspicuous people.
Lex: You can be the 500 most conspicuous people! In New York, if there's a protest of 10,000 people, there can be 10,000 police. If you've got 500 Black Bloc, the police will just go and arrest 20 or 30 of them at the beginning, and then everyone else distances themselves from them. It's very effective.
Grey: It's too effective. I think America is not a place to be doing street protest right now. We need to change our tactics, because they learn quickly. The state has people doing studies on the way we do demonstrations. They have think-tanks figuring it out, they have cross-trainings. The FBI is going into cities in advance of demonstrations, showing films about previous demonstrations to police department chiefs. They've figured out how to deal with us, which is very frustrating.
Lex: Do you have any reflections from N30, the day the WTO was shut down? How'd it go?
Grey: It went really wonderful. I don't know how else to summarize; just a wonderful day. It was one of the only times that I have ever felt like I lived in my city, like I had a place, that I was a citizen. I felt happy to be a citizen, because I was a citizen among 30,000 people that I agreed with. It was the first mass action where I didn't feel totally alienated.
I should back up and qualify that citizen thing: I didn't feel like a citizen of America that day. Rather, I felt like I had a community that I had never known I had, that I was suddenly aware that I wasn't so alienated, that there were a lot of people sympathetic to the ideas that I had, and they all came out of the woodwork for this.
Lex: Where did this idea of creating a musical group to direct the energy of N30 come from?
Grey: Well, there was a legacy from Tchkung! of knowing some rhythms in common with a few other people, and even having some marching rigs, because we would do that. With that group, we would go down with the crowd and march around. Sometimes we took over streets near the club. We would leave the club and take over a street, start a bonfire.
Lex: So, you had been doing public space liberations before?
Grey: Yes, we had. The INB is a way of expanding, amplifying and professionalizing something we had done with Tchkung!, where we would kind of come up with a rhythm about an hour before the show and say 'What rhythm are we going to do in the street after the show?' Ok, you do this. Ok, you try that part. Ok, let's do that.?
Now we have practiced rhythms and songs, marches in step; we have uniforms, a majorette who moves us around via commands, scouts with radios, a whole infrastructure. At this point, only a small faction of the ensemble had anything to do with Tchkung!, so there are different philosophical ideas and operating procedures.
Lex: The ideas came from experience. What kind of conclusions had you drawn from directing groups?
Grey: When doing an action in the street, the State expects you to be disorganized, they expect that you are not going to have a structure in place that could really challenge them. If you put in even a minimal amount of work, into communications, into technique, and you practice, it isn't that difficult to challenge the State on the territory of the street. That?s what November 30th proved. It's a lesson they've learned, but there was a time in the past when it was pretty easy to outsmart 'em.
Lex: You feel you are raising a counter-power by creating this direction?
Grey: Yes. There's almost this situation of mutual intimidation: the police have never attacked the INB or grabbed anybody in it. They know who we are, we're always antagonizing them. They'll grab people on the periphery, other people around. They never touch us. I think they're afraid to touch us because we're in a uniform and we're marching in step, and we're a unit. How can you grab one of us without enraging all of us? It's like a hornet's nest.
They know we?re all related. We're all colored the same. They don't want to get us mad. It's better to get the stragglers or the loose people. It creates this really powerful block, since people know that if they stay close, they?re safe.
Lex: What do you think of the relationship between the direction you provide and authority? Are you directing the energies that people have within them, or are you putting ideas and words into people's hearts and mouths through your rhythms and through your direction?
Grey: I always thought of it, to use New Age-speak, as facilitating the self-actualization of The Mob. If The Mob wants to tear down a McDonald's, if The Mob wants to sit peacefully in the street and block access, if The Mob wants to chant and sing, if The Mob wants to invade a bank lobby- it's about providing that extra kick of energy to whatever people want to do to make it the possible, and not the dream.
I think mobs are underrated. They are an exciting and uncivilized manifestation of groupmind. Usually the best political protests are mob-like, the boring ones are the demos with prescribed routes, speakers, and schedules. A lot of bad things have been done by mobs in the course of history- we should "reclaim" the mob, just like everything else, from the right. Mobs are anarchic and antithetical to order; one of the ironies of the INB is that we march in a rigid formation within a mob, which creates an interesting duality.
Lex: How do you find out The Mob wants to do?
Grey: I think you just try to read the crowd energy and you try to play the right rhythm at the right time.
Lex: That's a lot like African music, then. Isn't the facilitation of a good social event considered the highest goal in African music? Virtuosity is secondary to making sure that a social event goes well.
Grey: Yeah, and about working together. It?s not about virtuosity, it doesn't matter how simple our rhythms are. The idea is to read the crowd, to be a social accelerant, a cultural accelerant, a street accelerant. To be that substance. It's not about impressing people with rhythms.
Of course, it's good to use complex rhythms because they can create complex ideas. So you don't want to be pedestrian in the way you approach it.
Lex: So INB's work is very much part of a musical tradition, but it's not a Western musical tradition. It?s a tradition of rhythm and sociality.
Grey: Yes. I think it's traditional to most everywhere in the world. The first known marching band is a group called Mehter from Turkey. They were the musical ensemble of the Janissaries.
Lex: When was this?
Grey: This was hundreds of years ago, in the time of the Ottomans. This group was a special, elite, musical military corps, and the first known marching band. I went to Istanbul and saw them perform?
Lex: They're still around?
Grey: Yeah. They were banned for hundreds of years; then banned again by Attaturk, who wanted to modernize Turkey. He switched from the Arabic alphabet to the Roman alphabet, and he banned the fez and beards. He did many things to allegedly modernize Turkey; some good, some bad. And one thing he did was ban this group because they were like a militant Islamic body. Now they're nothing, just an historical group. They have their uniforms and they play old songs in the military museum once a day.
They had these enormous kettle drums and they would transport their drums on animals. And they had a bunch of shannai, or raitas or zurnas. You know, the double reed flutes like we were playing tonight. The group's entire instrumentation is actually very similar to the INB actually - trumpets, voice, zurna, lots of drums. That's kind of coincidental, since I discovered Mehter long after the INB had arranged its instrumentation. But I think there's some kind of
collective unconscious thing going on there.
Lex: Or homologous development. You were responding to the same causes.
Grey: After they made the example of using music as a kind of terrifying force in conflict, Europe began doing the same and that's where all the European military marching bands came from, down to your high school marching bands.
Lex: Why do you feel good about maintaining this tradition so bound up with war and militarism?
Grey: Because there's a difference between militarism and conflict.
A lot of people say that they're 'warriors for peace' or warriors for something. I don't know what I'm a warrior for, and I don't even like that word. But you can be involved in a conflict which you feel is a good struggle. Being involved in a conflict, you have the right to use the tools of conflict. That's what a lot of direct action is about. I feel that using this music in this way, as a force, is just using the tools in the toolbox. I don't think it's inappropriate.
Lex: Okay... And how does your work with the INB relate with your other work?
Grey: The computer-based music that I'm creating is a little lonely. It's just me and a computer. In a basement. Crumpled up in front of a machine that is shooting radiation with a gun from behind a piece of glass. It's unhealthy, it's lonely, it's not good for my social skills.
And, for me, computer music is kind of antithetical to my politics. So INB provides some balance. INB is something extremely social. I have to deal with 20 people, to move 20 people, to plan the logistics of 20 people. It's enormous: the transportation, food and lodging anytime we go anywhere. It needs and provides a really wide social network. It keeps my body in shape; physically drumming, holding a stick and beating on something. It's everything that a computer isn't.
Lex: I understand the reasons you just said about it being antithetical to your politics, but do you really feel like it's antithetical, or is that just an intellectual position?
Grey: No. I mean, I've been a Luddite, and in my core I still am. It's another one of those toolbox situations. To me, the computer is one of the most interesting tools available. I don't want to be a cheerleader for technology. I don't want to be obsessed by it. I don't want it to dominate my life. But, I feel like I've been given a gift, being able to play with something so new, musically; to be able to explore different ideas. I'd be a fool not to use it! It's such an important and interesting tool, such a place of pioneering?
Then, I get concerned that that desire to pioneer is part of a whole European analysis, a kind of a linear thinking?
Lex: Forging ahead.
Grey: Forging ahead, brave new worlds, breaking new ground. That's part of the hubris of a European mind. I think we've seen what the European mind has done to the world. Nature has been turned into a shopping mall. Resources are exactly that- resources. There are no trees: there are tree farms. There's no air: there's a substrate you're allowed to put certain parts per million of substances into before people start dying. There's just no respect.
Lex: You find that the source of this destruction in a European consciousness?
Grey: I don't know. I often suspect that if some non-European global power had emerged, it would have been just as ruthless. For instance, if the Ottomans had never been defeated, would we have a better world? Or if one of the African kingdoms had?
Lex: Is power the problem?
Grey: I think it's wildly popular to blame our current situation on the European mind. I'm not going to disagree with that. But, in my heart of hearts, I believe that it's that power. Any model of power and hierarchy would be ultimately fucked up in a different way. The way that Europeans colonized the world, and colonized people is this way; through ideas of efficiency, of the efficiency of the commodity? Everything is a unit that can be packaged, transferred and sold.
I don't want to be dogmatic in the way I question it, but I can't just accept it as a truth that I should be pioneering, or that I should be making something that's never been done before. But, also, I feel like I haven't inherited any traditions, so what else would I do, if I'm a creative person, but create new things?
Lex: What do you mean, though, you haven't inherited any traditions? Isn't the idea of the avant-garde, of creative progression and art history, isn't that one of the greatest traditions in the Western world? That you've learned from the artists who've come before you, and you will push your form into the future into its next blossom and fruition. Don't you think that's a great tradition?
Grey: Yeah, but I wonder if I am part of an avant-garde. Sometimes I feel like I'm a folk artist. Really, it's a strange analysis. I've been spending a lot of time with this composer lately. He makes high art music, experimental composition. We did a Chinese percussion duo recently, and I realized This is high art music. And I realized that actually I don't do a whole lot of that; that I am obsessed by working with comprehensible themes for common people.