Clubbing in a Police State in 2016

January 2016, and the promise of a new year filled with endless possibilities it represents, is palpable even through Oslo’s frosty -18 degree celsius winds blowing through the heart of the Norwegian city. The prospect of a president-elect-Trump is still the worry of some far-fetched radical distant future; Brexit is  the totalitarian proclivity of only a few radicalised men and women, ignorant of any tangible evidence for their conclusions; Andreas Gehm, Phife Dawg, Prince, George Michael and David Mancuso are still with us; and in general, world opinion is less divided than it has yet to become – even though an ambivalent, apathetic sentiment has already begun to ferment in the bowels of a political elite and their obstinate and obtuse followers, who had completely lost touch with any sense of the real world. No, January 16th 2016 still held the promise of a new year, and those other things were still the worries of a not-so-distant dystopian future, especially in Oslo, where I felt a presence, I had not felt since…

Redrum : Murdering the dance floor.

Passing a corner in Grensen a queue of people greeted me, directing me towards the new Oslo Theatre’s basement entrance as they snaked their way over the pavement. There was a optimism there amongst them that reflected my own at the prospect of the opening of Redrum, a new clubbing event that was being talked about in revered tones, even before it made its debut that night. It was an unusual sight in Oslo to see so many people out the pre 1 AM mark, many young and eager faces among them. I had a tinge of that excitement I had first felt back, o so many years ago, when clubbing was still very new to me and still retained much of the subcultural status it had garnered since the eighties, as a social space for groups of people that didn’t acquiesce to the status quo or pander to the popular. Redrum particularly imbued this feeling. Coming together through an unlikely group of Oslo’s most motivated and sincere electronic music fans, Redrum captured something unique in the current clubbing landscape. An antithesis to clubbing since the dawn of the super-club, the super DJ and the producer-DJ ubiquity, Redrum didn’t conform to the ideas of electronic music that had cemented its popularity in recent times, and an audience from Oslo’s most unlikely, reciprocated and gathered en masse to take part in this event, and like me, they were completely oblivious to its ultimate demise.

By the time DJ Sannergata had gotten to the decks, pushing the limits of refinement through tempos that brushed passed the 140BPM mark and nullifying physics as the vibrating speakers took on a rigid form. Protruding from their timber coffin at a 90 degree angle they were strained, and audibly so, but the dance floor of the basement venue was packed and every body was moving. When the house lights went on around 00:30 a loud cheer erupted around me. A few minutes passed and they stayed on, awkwardly flooding the dark basement with artificial light, but the music was still playing and there still wasn’t a stationary body in the house. When a surly looking man, looking very much out of place in his plaid shirt, chinos, sensible coat and messenger bag stepped up to the booth, we finally sensed something was wrong and when he killed sound system, pulling a cord out of socket, the shock and confusion that fell on Sannergata’s face did well to capture the dismay of everyone around me. The police had literally just pulled the plug on this party and without much warning, they sent a bunch of bemused people out onto the streets immediately souring the spirit. With chants of “we want our money back” the crowd flooded out of  the venue while a small group of policemen and -women looked on from the opposite side of the street. I catch a glimpse of the man that pulled the plug and I believe that I discern a grin etching its way across his face.

The legal president for closing the event? It’s not, as you might have immediately thought narcotics (although it seemed there might have been grounds for that judging from a few gurning faces) or even a noise complaint, but rather something incredibly trivial. It seems the police found grounds for illegal activity at the sight of an administrative omission from the organisers, who had not used a regulation electronic payment system. Not registering your takings electronic apparently calls for immediate and punitive action from a small police force in civilian clothing. Redrum and her organisers were, in the following weeks, escorted into interrogation rooms to be questioned by police like an organised crime syndicate, facing quite serious charges. These are people I’ve known on a personal level as a group of unassuming electronic music fans, a reserved group of people that spend most Saturdays with family engagements, holed up in studios, or in bedrooms playing records and vintage synthesisers. The police however had grounds for suspicion and Redrum were “fortunate” enough to walk away with a hefty fine, but what this ultimately came to was the demise of Redrum after a single uncompleted event.

You see, how I mean to live is underground.

Redrum was unfortunately a victim of her own success and a social media reach that extended far beyond their immediate social circle, meant you had to be living under a rock in Oslo, in a lead dome to have missed any news of the event. That also implies the police naturally got wind of it too, and what was initially meant to be a small gathering of music heads was suddenly a high-profile “rave” smack bang in the centre in the city. (Curiously, the more low-key venue Redrum first booked, opted out at the last minute without much of an explanation, and there is some suspicion that the police might have paid the owner a visit.) If Redrum might have stayed off social media and remained at their initial low-key venue, would the police have still shut it down?

Fast forward a few months and a television news article catches my attention. I judge from the interviewee, we are still in Norway – Oslo says the scrolling text below a very grave looking fireman. Dressed in his firefighting fatigues, he swings a wide fire escape door shut and then open, pointing to various fire hazards as he descends into a basement, the remnants of which looks like an abandoned squat, except for the professional, high end sound equipment. It was the venue of an illegal rave in the city that the police had shut down, and the camera does its best to sensationalise the scene, zooming in on empty plastic wrappers scattered across the floor; cigarette burns on an old couch; electric outlets feeding an aggregation of appliances; and that huge heavy fire door swinging shut, barricading an exit and robbing a group of hypothetical teens from a hypothetical future and in a few purposeful camera angles putting a question to its audience: what if, but what if could swing the other way too. 

What if the current political rhetoric towards club music and culture continues on its moralist right-wing path and remains unchanged? What if the politicians and the law makers keep looking on this movement with the same disdain they’ve immortalised in things like the Criminal Justice act in the UK and The Rave act in the USA? These are the very same moralistic views imbedded in a traditionalist right-wing theme that have put a stranglehold on London’s clubbing scene; installed the dancing ban in Japan; judges event organisers in the US under laws intended for crack houses; and has resulted in the strict big-brother, nanny-state controls in Oslo that have restricted the potential for a thriving club scene since the nineties. What if there’s nowhere else to go but under ground to escape the purview of these cultural bigots and their staunch, most often religiously motivated, traditions?

Thirty-six unfortunate souls got to answer that question when the Ghost Ship went up in flames in Oakland in the US this December. With no support or infrastructure for club music and club culture to survive at a sub-cultural level (the big edm raves and super clubs of Ibiza are a popular culture today and fall outside this category) venues like Ghost Ship and that basement in Oslo fill a demand. Unfortunately this demand is pounced upon by individuals with very little or often no experience and the DIY nature in which the approach it can often have dire consequences. Where there’s no support from the state for this class of cultural institution and no midsize venues to cater to smaller audiences because they’ll just get shut down, somebody’s informal living arrangement would have to be a venue and wood crates would have to suffice as a staircase, wood cases that trapped those innocent lives on the ghost ship – innocent lives whose only objective was to experience something unique in a world that has become more gentrified than ever in 2016.

Months before this tragic event, I was speaking to Jack France, a counter cultural figure in London who alongside Sebastian Bartz puts together the INFERNO events in London. INFERNO is an event series that sought out the unusual and the non-conformist, extending from music to the arts. What started out in the established mid-level club Dalston Superstore, had to move to squats when they started drawing “too much attention” from local authorities, something Dalston Superstore couldn’t afford in an contemporary environment where Dance Tunnel just came to an end and Fabric’s license was barely hanging on a thin thread. I listened to Jack muse about their last event where they had to pump out a flooded basement and fight off local gangster types looking to extort money from the event’s organisers with a lone security guard the only deterrent to a volatile situation. “The security guy was brilliant”, said Jack at the time, but it’s something else he said that hit nerve: “at least we were open while Fabric was closed….” They were indeed open, possibly putting punters in danger of local gangsters in a venue that was not quite up to code, while Fabric, “a beacon of good practises” was about to get shut down. But without places like Fabric and Dunce Tunnel, those mid-level venues that cater specifically to a counter culture, where else can we get to experience a counter cultural activity?

The agenda

At the time of speaking to Jack, Fabric was temporarily closed until they awaited the fate of the council hearing, a hearing that revoked their license, but ultimately lead to them striking a deal with the council and police that will see their doors swing open again in the new year. The events surrounding this result has been thoroughly publicised and there’s no need reiterating them here, but while writing a piece about Fabric and their situation (an interview that we will probably never get to publish), and listening/reading some of the opinions expressed by the Fabric team, something became abundantly clear. Although much of it was vitriol and criticisms, it did the appear they were being specifically targeted and suggests there was an agenda from the authorities. It’s all conjecture of course and we have no evidence other than hearsay and public opinion to back this up, but there was the undeniable feeling that club music was being persecuted, for reasons we’ve not been able to fathom. Prohibiting the sale of illegal substances might be the cause for this “agenda”, but it seems incredibly futile to cut the supply off at the last point and not the source. So if there is indeed an agenda the reason behind it seems to be something quite sinister and this has led to a general feeling of discontent, between the authorities and the clubbing community, splitting a rift between “us” and “them” wider than ever in 2016.

In Oslo in July this contempt was more tangible than ever as a clubbing institution in the city was facing the same fate as Fabric. Blå which has been a significant cultural phenomena and hub in the city for twenty years and more, catering to all kinds of marginalised musical declinations, from the Hip-Hop and Reggae of the Raggabalder crew; and the Techno, House and Disco from Prins Thomas’ Full Pupp nights; to the weekly oddball Jazz from the Frank Snort orchestra, all in one of Oslo’s most bohemian settings. There was public outrage at the authorities, which included the police and næringstetaten (the official licensing authority) for revoking Blå’s license, and much like in Fabric’s case, the decision seemed to be overturned by public opinion. As the rumour mill started to churn, insinuating police were deliberately targeting Blå and arresting known offenders in or outside the venue to force closure, overwhelming public pressure mounted and following a brief trial licensing period, Blå did get its license back. It’s almost as if the public outcry at the prospects of losing Blå and Fabric took these authorities completely by surprise as is evidence in the very unorthodox and unprecedented ways they turned their decisions in both cases. It also suggests that they are perhaps not as restricted by the confines of the law as they make out to be and can in deed make compromises and even exceptions.

Why and if an agenda then exists is unclear. The gentrification of the inner city all around major European cities may go to explain some of the situations, but not all. In Oslo public opinion also lays blame on a police force that is unwilling to co-operate with venue owners and the stringent laws governing nightlife which sees the city’s population arriving and leaving in scheduled droves each weekend, resulting in altercations with each other as they try to occupy the same space for a short period of time through a drunken haze and perhaps stretching the police’s resources. I’m of the opinion too that the nanny state which Oslo and Norway has so effectively pushed onto their citizens has lead to a lack of self-control, self-reliance and personal responsibility. The strict alcohol laws that govern are not intended for the drunk that binge drinks and starts a fight but rather the person serving him or her. Where all responsibility lies on the venue to control their punters, the population has been raised on the expectations that leave them largely unaccountable for how much they consume. (Licenses can be revoked and staff can be fined for serving an outwardly drunk individual.) With that kind of hand-holding going on, self-control doesn’t need to exist and many punters tend to then drink until they are given orders to stop.

Extend this practise to narcotics, where venues are often helpless, because if there is a will there is always a way,  and you’ve got a serious problem, a problem the authorities have placed once again laid all the responsibility on the shoulders of the venues in Norway. My own experiences of speaking- and listening to authority figures from næringstetaten and the police is one of complete disengagement with the reality of club culture, to the point where they can’t even begin to offer any solution to the very things they will hold the venue operator responsible for. I’ve sat through a nærinstetaten community program with the police and when the question was raised of how to discourage drug use in an establishment a mere shrug of the shoulders is all they could offer, telling us that subject would be approached during a future version of this program. But your license could still be revoked if drugs are found in your venue. The general feeling amongst venue owners is that they are happy to operate in the confines of the law, “but if they can’t even tell us how to deal with it, how do they expect us to deal with it”. That suggests to me that the authorities hardly know what to do about the situation themselves and leaves me to agree with Pål Strangefruit’s summary of the situation, who during an interview one rainy afternoon in July said: “I think it’s very clear that the politicians and the police are a very long away from where we are.“

A new hope

Looking back on that interview with Pål and those dark clouds hovering over us – Oslo in the summertime – could easily today be interpreted as some sort of ominous prediction of dark times ahead, an end to a 2016 that saw a predominantly right-wing, moralist ideology grab the imaginations of the populace. Albeit marginally, it seems to be winning everywhere at the end of 2016, and its views seem to to be seeping into every aspect of our lives and it was particularly felt in the realms of club music and its culture. But then again the authorities and their willingness to compromise like in the case of Fabric and Blå are indicative of not being able to point a finger of blame at one institution. Things are far from black and white and the police also have to work within the confines of laws, more so than any other institution. It’s still however up to the authorities to take the greatest step forward to-day I believe, and for that they’d do well to take a page from Amsterdam’s book.

A night zsar, harm reduction strategies and more flexible licensing laws that allow some clubs to stay open longer than others, have made nightlife in 2016 a wonderfully lively and safe experience in Amsterdam. Three new exciting venues, a clubbing tourism that probably surpasses even Berlin now and an infrastructure that allows the scene to thrive is what clubbing in Amsterdam predominantly represented this year. Berlin might have made Berghain a cultural institution and Tokyo might have become a new highlight in electronic music following the end of the dancing ban in 2015, but Amsterdam really proved to be the most progressive city in terms of their attitude towards nightlife and the culture that’s spawned around the electronic music. And while London might be taking a step in that direction with Sadiq Kahn installing a night zsar, Oslo and Norway probably has the longest road to travel to get to that point.

Where Redrum’s immediate demise might not bode well for the future of clubbing in Oslo, Blå being able to remain open is a glimmer of hope that attitudes might sway towards a more liberal view of club music and its culture in the future, but everybody is very much on tenterhooks. What I did take from this year and especially Redrum however is that there is a severe hunger for a more alternative club culture there, one away from the established, a subculture which is not restricted by trivial laws made twenty years ago and free to thrive through individuals that inspire and motivate outside of the confines of the popular and give music, art and culture a forward momentum.

What I learnt through clubbing in a police state in 2016 is that thirst is still there, driving it all along as it has done since David Mancuso. Where barriers are presented, those folks who are keen to preserve the ethos of clubbing will find a way around it and as we learnt from the Ghost Ship, it can have very dire and tragic consequences if an infrastructure isn’t already present. Clubbing in a police state is not conducive to the nature of this music and the fundamental nature of this culture and the more we fight it it seems the more the authorities are willing to compensate. It’s still way too far away to establish a dialogue as we saw with some of those conditions of Fabric’s re-opening, with this side of the fence doing most of the bending as the authorities apply their will on us, quite unfairly. But it seems we’d rather still be doing it, and have to endure being watched over by big brother, than lose it all together.  2016 might then stand testament to changing attitudes to club culture for the future. If we were indeed clubbing in a police state, it looks like it would take a whole lot to be able to oppress it and there’s always the promise of a new year just waiting over the horizon.