Counter-Cultural Policy: The Challenge of Tracing Underground Culture

On a recent Saturday evening I found myself attending a show at the Empty Bottle music venue in Chicago's Ukrainian Village neighborhood. While watching the act – a four-piece, faux-lounge band from Los Angeles, whose lead singer performed in a full-body spandex suit and sang through a head-set microphone – I looked around, attempting to account for the various aspects of the experience. I wanted to know why, upon entering this small and grungy Chicago dive bar, I found myself feeling like I was communing with a scene that had a palpable, if somewhat elusive, identity. I wanted to know what elements of this space and situation were essential to its continuity, or what assured attendees of a similar experience if they returned the following Saturday. In short, I wanted to understand the mechanics of underground, performance-based scenes.

The Empty Bottle in Chicago

This exploration into the constitution of scenes was not, on my part, a novel line of inquiry. Sociologists Terry Clark from the University of Chicago and Daniel Silver from the University of Toronto in their recent book Scenescapes: How Qualities of Place Shape Social Life have sought to account for scenes and how they relate to more familiar ways of viewing urban space – e.g., according to political, ethnic, and physical parameters. For Silver and Clark a scene is "the aesthetic meaning of a place" as it relates to "broader and more universal themes." [1] The various elements of a given locale result in an identifiable character, something that is noticed or felt by visitors and participants – this felt and experienced quality is what is meant by the term ‘scene’.

Over the course of Scenescapes, the authors trace the emergence of distinct scenes within urban spaces to the proliferation of social desires or preferences that have resulted from, among other trends, increases in general affluence, safety, health, and education. [2] As the quality of the lived experience improves, people are left with more time and motivation to cultivate strong preferences for certain activities. Naturally, the market has met this increased demand, and the commercialization of preferences has led to a variety of new industries and business models that aim to address these increasingly distinct interests. These spaces, institutions, and businesses – along with the other entities that meet the perennial wants of social stimulation and an enjoyable living environment – are amenities.

The methodology that Silver and Clark employ to examine a given area's scene(s) focuses on the existing amenities and evaluates these according to an extensive list of criteria (self-expression, traditionalism, transgression, corporate, etc.), thus teasing out the aforementioned "aesthetic meaning of a place." [3] A scene is not simply a collection of physical amenities, but it is known and identified by the presence of certain amenities, e.g. organic groceries and boutique yoga studios may be indicators of what David Brooks refers to as a Bohemian-Bourgeoisie neighborhood. [4]

A band takes the stage at Chicago’s Empty Bottle.

But can the examination of amenities, with its bias towards commercial institutions, adequately account for underground culture? Is underground culture anchored to amenities in a different manner than other forms of culture?

If we were to take a converse approach to Silver and Clark’s work, starting from the non-localized collection of values and identities that constitute a scene, rather than from a given physical space that may possess several interpenetrating scenes, the importance of the brick and mortar institution may be diminished – at least in the case of underground culture. For Chicago's Empty Bottle there appears to be a few concurrent elements at play that result in the scene: (1) the physical space and the people that manage it; (2) the niche audience, that frequent the location; and (3) the artists and organizers that provide the venue's cultural draw.

None of these three elements prove essential to the scene's existence – except for the fact that some physical location is required, though it need not be consistent. Artists and audiences are always changing. And, if these audience changes occur incrementally over time, the impact on a scene is not disastrous. The physical space, and the manner in which it is managed, do give rise to this particular manifestation of the scene, but the scene may not be completely reliant upon this particular physical space. In fact, the Empty Bottle may be simply a node in a wider network. Therefore, the scene might be an archipelago of physical spaces that remain connected because of shared participants who share similar values and lifestyles. [5]

Multimedia performance at the now-defunct venue Big Snow Buffalo Lodge in Brooklyn, NY

This leads to an important possibility: underground culture is perhaps less tied to a locality or physical space than other forms of culture. [6] Within Silver and Clark's framework, this would imply that underground culture, or a given archipelagic scene that is considered underground, can exist in neighborhoods with significantly different sets of amenities, since the authors identify scenes as manifesting in localities with shared amenity profiles.

There are a couple reasons why underground culture might be unique in this regard. First, underground culture is often more closely tied to residential and non-commercial areas. This is most likely due to the relatively limited opportunities available to the practitioners of underground culture due to lack of access to, or anti-establishment resistance towards, more conventional forms of promotion and exhibition. Underground culture is showcased wherever it can be showcased; this ‘low-rent’ and ‘do-it-yourself’ quality often precludes considerations of whether an event or performance matches the aesthetic character of a neighborhood. For example, an avant-garde performance could be hosted in the back room of a tattoo parlor in East Austin, a loft in Chelsea, or an empty warehouse in Baton Rouge's shipping district. Each of these neighborhoods would have very different amenities – or the near absence of amenities in the case of Baton Rouge's shipping district. Second, underground culture is generally more comfortable with the subversive; the mismatch between the content of a performance and the aesthetic character of its environs is often sought and celebrated. This deliberate discrepancy occurs frequently with underground electronic music performances. [7]

This would appear to have significant implications for cultural policy. It begs the question of what a policy lever for culture without specific and consistent place criteria even looks like? How would it work? Of course, culture always manifests in space and is not just a specter-like abstraction. But when place is secondary, how is policy to engage with it? [8]

The difficulties may not be reserved only for underground culture, which is often indifferent to and overlooked by cultural policy initiatives; or, perhaps, underground culture casts a wider net than is first assumed. The peculiarities of a rock venue in Chicago may be shared by an avant-garde jazz club in New York, a visual arts shared-studio space in Austin, or a coffee shop in New Orleans that hosts nightly poetry readings.

As I turned from the Empty Bottle's main stage and watched the opening band sip complimentary Milwaukee's Best beers at the bar and speak passionately with some newfound fans, I was not inclined to think that this scene needed protection. But as more and more venues, artist studios, and D.I.Y. spaces are threatened or closed across the country, is it too far-fetched to think that this scene and the dingy bar that hosts it may someday be considered a cultural treasure? Surely, for many of the attendees it is already considered as such. And if the cultural policy community sought to safeguard such a scene, what sort of policy lever would be appropriate? What would, in fact, be safeguarded when place is not the point?



1. Silver, Daniel Aaron, and Terry Nichols Clark. Scenescapes: How Qualities of Place Shape Social Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

2. Ibid

3. Ibid

4. Brooks, David. Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

5. This notion of scenes as decentralized and archipelagic has been explored in the work of Stephen Sawyer, especially in a study that he conducted for the City of Paris.

2011. Editor, "Une cartographie culturelle de Paris: Les Ambiances du Paris-Métropole". Report submitted to the City of Paris, 195 pps, 55 maps and illustrations.

6. This, of course, does not apply to all forms of underground culture. For example, venues for drag shows and other performances that are aligned with the LGBT community highly regard specific physical space because there is often the real need for safety from discrimination and violence.

7. A notable example of this is the series of electronic dance music events that Boiler Room hosts in cities throughout the world.

8. It is worth mentioning that UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage program has worked to identify and preserve intangible culture, such as folklore and story-telling traditions.

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