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11 2011

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There’s No Such Thing as the Mainstream

Talks LECH MOLIŃSKI talks to BARTEK CHACIŃSKI

Poland’s best exports are heavy metal, improvised music, and electronic music, and yet we somehow insist upon making the West listen to Edyta Górniak

You’re not indifferent about any of the mini-cultures you present in your book Wyż nisz (The rise of the niche). I wonder how much of what you’ve written is the labor of a theoretician fascinated with his subject, and how much of it comes from practical experience.

BARTEK CHACIŃSKI: I was actually commissioned to write the book, but it did in fact spark my interest. I’m not an academic like Mirek Pęczak, who wrote Mały słownik subkultur (A Small Dictionary of Subcultures), so my writing doesn’t involve a whole lot of theory. I always try to have a personal approach to my subjects. In this case, I had some personal experience with almost a quarter of the niche cultures in the book. But what I found most fascinating were the cultures that were relatively foreign to me, whose history I didn’t know, and which I had to research, often with some help from my friends: the straight edge subculture, skaters, fixie riders. I’m crazy about filling the holes in my pop-culture education, and I’m certain that this particular field of knowledge tells us more about the modern world than we would think.

Bartek Chaciński
(from his private
archiv

To which of the mini-cultures do you feel closest?

I have a lot of sympathy for video game players, audiophiles, pirates, bloggers, alterglobalists, hip-hop fans, hackers, metalheads, and others, because I spend time with people like that on a daily basis. I‘ve had my stints with a few of those niche cultures. But as far as pickup artists, emo kids, and even goths go, what I feel is more along the lines of tolerance. The same is true for all the cultures in the book. Even if there’s something about them that I don’t like, I still think that every fan of a particular genre, anyone who has a deep interest in something and has their own world, is more worthy than someone who has never had a single interest in their whole life. I’d rather talk to someone that’s a big fan of disco polo than someone who only listens to whatever is on the radio and doesn’t care either way. Our entire lives consist of the exchange of information. There’s a ton of interesting things that you can find out from a fan of disco polo, but a conversation with someone who’s interested in nothing is probably going to stop at the weather. There’s no experience to be shared.

Bartek Chaciński

Bartek Chaciński is a journalist and publicist. He graduated from the University of Warsaw with a degree in journalism. He is the former editor in chief of “City Magazine Warszawa”, the former music editor of the music monthly “Machina” and the deputy editor of the weekly “Przekrój”. He has worked with the radio stations Rozgłośnia Harcerska, Radiostacja, and Radio Bis. He has published in “Ex Libris”, “Duży Format”, and “Nowa Fantastyka”. His interests include contemporary youth speech, a subject he has devoted slang dictionaries to: Wypasiony słownik najmłodszej polszczyzny (2003), Wyczesany słownik najmłodszej polszczyzny (2005), and Totalny słownik najmłodszej polszczyzny (2007). He also writes about modern culture and contemporary music. He currently hosts radio shows on Polish Radio Two and Three. He was awarded the title of Young Ambassador of the Polish Language in 2008 by the Council on the Polish Language at the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Senate of the Republic of Poland. In 2010, Chaciński published Wyż nisz. Od alterglobalistów do zośkarzy. 55 małych kultur (The rise of the niche. 55 mini-cultures, from alterglobalists to hackey sackers).
*A form of dance music native to Poland, popularized in the early 1990s, featuring heavy use of synthesizers and adapted folk melodies.

What were the criteria for inclusion in the book? I’ll admit that I find it somewhat dubious that you wrote about grunge. I see that culture as something dead and gone. There’s no way to pin that label on Pearl Jam, who are still performing today. Then there are other niche groups that have a lot of overlap, like backpackers, travelers, and couchsurfers, while groups like wardrivers, ironmen, and air guitarists sound extremely obscure.

I decided to include grunge because I feel that it hasn’t lost its relevance in Poland. Many music fans see the entire genre of alternative music from the perspective of grunge music and its derivatives, the music of the early ‘90s. I stand by my choice to include wardrivers, but in a time of nearly ubiquitous internet access and growing computer security consciousness, they are in fact a dying breed. Just three years ago, I could pick up two or three open home networks in my apartment building. Now they’re all encrypted. Putting ironmen in there was a bit tongue-in-cheek. They’re not actually a group, they’re more like a handful of ingenious individuals. Air guitarists were a joke, too. In describing them, I wanted to show how something completely insane can have the power to get people to hold an international competition. If you look at air guitarists, you’ll notice two very important things. One – there’s no real difference between them and people who practice “actual” sports. How we organize our interests and what types of weird disciplines we’re capable of constructing rules around is completely relative. Some people might find air guitarists ridiculous, while others might think the same of figure skating. And two ― this whole culture of simulation that’s been growing really big lately has its roots in the phenomenon of air guitar. You could write a whole book about it! The selection inevitably fails to convey the whole richness of mini-cultures. Instead of writing about fifty-five mini-cultures, I could have written about five hundred fifty-five, if only I had the strength, patience, and time. I chose the ones I did because I found them interesting or relevant to today’s culture.

What seems interesting is the interdependence displayed by particular mini-cultures. First you had punk, for example, which later gave rise to the straight edge movement and the riot grrrl phenomenon. In the introduction to your book, you describe this tendency as a tangle of niches. Will the world of mini-cultures continue to evolve? What could hinder the continuing decentralization of culture?

That interdependency is what I find most to be the most fascinating as well. Punk gave us a general philosophical outline of most youth cultures: don’t change the world, create your own world, do everything yourself. But at the same time, punk didn’t provide structure to too many parts of its adherents’ lives, aside from music, zines, and to a certain extent, fashion. The next enormous culture to come after it was hip-hop, which kept part of punk’s philosophy of action, but also structured people’s time on so many levels. It gave rise to a natural federation, with dance, graffiti writing, feuds, competitions, beatboxing, record player culture, etc.

I think these niche cultures will grow deeper and more difficult for bystanders to define. People will have more and more labels with which to describe themselves, but they’ll avoid completely identifying with any one culture, in fear of someone selling it out and trying to turn it into the some mainstream hit of the season. That’s why labels such as emo, indie, or hipster are just that ― labels, not actual cultures. As far as the cultural landscape of a given country goes (in this case, Polish culture), the only force that can prevent certain groups of people from becoming isolated is reasonable policy on the part of the public sector, that is the ministries and the media. All niche phenomena should be discussed in natural manner. Instead of approaching them with an attitude of astonishment, we should treat them like we would national culture. I don’t know if that’s even possible.

How do you define what mainstream culture is in a day and age when fans of any sort of niche interest or sport, anywhere on the globe, can form communities in endless configurations?

I would define it as the net effect of many niche cultures. It’s not the niche cultures that are defined in opposition to the mainstream, it’s the mainstream that is formed from a mosaic of the strongest cultural currents. Big-budget mainstream cinema didn’t notice when supposedly niche genres swallowed it whole. Science fiction consistently ranks at the top of box-office sales, even though it’s still considered a niche genre. Poland’s best exports are heavy metal, improvised music, and electronic music, and yet we somehow insist upon making the West listen to Edyta Górniak. The mainstream is weakening. I sometimes wonder whether there ever was such a thing as the mainstream; perhaps it’s always been something of a silent agreement that helped us find common ground when we talked about culture. We can define the “mainstream” as whatever is most popular at the moment (and whatever we need to know in order to carry a conversation with a random person on the tram). But that’s always going to be a variable, not a constant.

Books like Wyż nisz, which draw heavily on the latest trends, are dated as soon as theyre published. Is that a fault?

I‘ve become something of an expert on publishing dated books. Everything I come out with grows old pretty quickly. When I look at old articles that I wrote as a journalist, I find things that sound dated now. The fact that this book is going to need an update in a few years doesn’t worry me. Besides, the only alternative is not to write at all. Or write fiction, make stuff up about universal topics, and I can’t do that.

The books small format and its accessible, dictionary-style entries make it the perfect choice for reading on the tram or on the train. Its easy to get into, but not too hard to put away. Was that the idea?

I wish I could say I was that clever, but that’s just how it turned out. I sorted the entries alphabetically, after I had written them in random order. The publisher chose the format. The pocket dictionary format was natural choice for a book like this. The only thing I can take credit for is its accessible style. I like to build a rapport with the reader, and if I’m going to say something, I should at least say it in a manner that makes reading as smooth as possible. The reader isn’t the only who needs to make an effort. I don’t mean to say that that’s a virtue in itself, of course. My colleagues sometimes think of me as an idiot because of it. But I’d rather be an idiot in the eyes of a few than a bore in the eyes of everyone.

translated by Arthur Barys

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Talks

There’s No Such Thing as the Mainstream

LECH MOLIŃSKI talks to BARTEK CHACIŃSKI

Intro

Distant Close-up

John Biweekly