Ripley here, just returned from a few days in Graz, Austria, where I was a guestÂ at the 11th Elevate Festival. Elevate brings together two levels of social action: discussions, workshops, panels and documentary films in the daytime featuring organizers, film-makers, technologists, and musicians/artists, and then at night a program of music ranging acrossÂ djs, producers,Â live bands and acts that combine all or some of the above. The festival also has an awards processÂ granting an award (includingÂ cash) to “projects who are actively working for social, ecological and/or economical justice and the improvement of the life circumstances of people and mother nature.” Ongoing themesÂ areÂ a strong concern aboutÂ the (mis)uses of technology, and a strong concernÂ for climate change. This year both wereÂ increasingly overshadowed by Europe’s current failure to address the human rights of people at (and moving through) its borders. We allÂ saw the failureÂ taking shape in real time, as thousands ofÂ people were fleeing near and through Graz itself, across the nearby Slovenian border, andÂ via various accounts of state and NGO responses, such as fellow participant Christian Payne’s encounter with the Red Cross one night:
Just met with the Red Cross here in Graz. Lack of communication is making their job almost impossible. Quote: “There is no European Union”
â€” Christian Payne (@Documentally) October 24, 2015
One of the most interesting dynamicsÂ of the festival was people who see themselves as fighting for a better world grappling with this fundamental contradiction (not unique to Europe of course): Â colonialism &Â imperialism created the wealth that sustains and defines who get access to material security that defines the European insiders, but the government and social institutions thatÂ support theÂ insiders mainly refuse the debt they owe peopleÂ (as well as violatingÂ their own human rights treaties, and violating human decency and compassion).Â The other contradiction -that of partying and talking while people are suffering outside- was negotiated over and over again at different moments.
This was apt enough – Creative Response was the theme of the whole event, and festival participants wereÂ challenged to respond creatively to this ongoing issue, and also to respect those people who were responding with creative vision to imagine themselves elsewhere and to keep trying against incredible odds to get there. The phrase sums up the role not only of artists, but also of people and communities who survive against all kinds of odds. To be creative, meaning (as guest Vandana Shiva put it) to be concerned with life, with living. Many attendees, including myself, were interviewed on our interpretations of the phrase.
The festival had opened with speeches, as festivalsÂ so often do, including one by filmmaker Antonino D’Ambrosio, and then two men from the nearby refugee camp outside of the city of Graz (which is not far from the Slovenian border), one from Syria and one from Iraq, spoke to us about the ongoing struggles they were facing due to some hostility and neglect by the Austrian state, as well as the failure of coordination (to put it nicely) and violation of human rights agreements ongoing in the European region. Later in the festival, Elevate presented one of its three Elevate awards to the Syrian White HelmetsÂ (donate to them at that link), in one of the many acknowledgements of these struggles.
The panel I was on: Creative Response/Ability, was about artistsâ€™ role in dealing with the challenges facing the world and communities within it. On board for the discussion were people whoÂ mix art/provocation/activism/political commitment in variousÂ ways: Â The Yes Men (US),Â Antonino D’Ambrosio (US), myself – Â DJ Ripley (US),Â Elisabeth Mayerhofer (AT)Â John Jordan (UK, Co-founder of Reclaim the Streets and the Clown Army ) – via Videostream,Â Kalyanee Mam (KH) – via Videostream,Â HERBERT (UK) – via Videostream. Â We had an interesting discussion. One of the ongoing tensions was the familiar â€œweâ€™re all in this togetherâ€/â€œletâ€™s not use ‘us and them’ languageâ€ (raised by many especially in the audience), vs. â€œyou canâ€™t forget who your enemies areâ€ (that phrase in particularÂ from John Jordan, initially speaking aboutÂ the cooptation of radical art of the 1970s by the establishment). Â I attempted to point out that â€œenemyâ€ is a structural position as much as a political one – certain people directly profit from harming others.
Partway through the event, someone from the audience stood up and announced that thousands of people had just come through the Slovenian border and were walking towards Graz at this very moment, and what were we going to do about it. SomeÂ suggested the state should step in, some suggested immediate action “how can we go dancing when it’s freezing outside, people are going to die,” another person who was part of an activist group pointed out that there were already hundreds of people in Graz who had crossed the border, and an ongoing response (including a protest camp) already in existence, others were impatient to get going into the night. I suggestedÂ thatÂ people who wanted to coordinate an action should identify themselves, including those who were connected to ongoing organizing, and everyone who felt they could or should, could go work with them, Daniel suggested they take over the upstairs space to do it. People started using the Elevate Festival Twitter to announce information about this action and other things, includingÂ about the protest camp and a march and protest the following day. At the end, there was still discussion, recrimination, critique and escape happening. I myself didn’t go out, having no German skills to speak of, no networks in Graz or local knowledge to draw on… I didn’t think I had a lot to offer that night. But it was a bit strange to head to my DJ gig after that conversation.
The lineup – well, what can you say about a lineup like this:Â DJ Funk live (Dance Mania/US),Â Bok Bok (Night Slugs/UK),Â RP Boo (Planet Mu, Honest Jon’s Records/US),Â Venus X (GHE20G0TH1Kâ€¬/US),Â MikeQ (Fade To Mind/US), and yours trulyÂ DJ Ripley (Dutty Artz/US) kicking off the festivities. It was an honor to be on it, and itÂ brought out tensions akin to those faced by the daytime program. Each actÂ is unique, building a roster that challenges mainstreamÂ standards of genre, taste, gender and sexuality, both through adamant stances rooted outside those standards in very particular diasporic communities, and also from nervy hybrid approachesÂ that attempt to subvert dominant standards through blurring, layering and dialoguing music across various borders.
The rest of the festival was a bit of a blur – there was a march and protest in support of (and including a lot of) refugees on Saturday:
When I got back toÂ the Forum, I caughtÂ some great conversations about convivial technology which included some thoughtful and experienced discussion of how technology worksÂ in and for different communities, and also a report and conversationÂ from Augsburg’sÂ Grandhotel Cosmopolis, which is a project employing and housingÂ refugees whoÂ work in but also create their own space which hosts other people on the move, as well as organizing their own workshops, artistic events and other actions thatÂ encourage solidarity and creativity.
I was also recognized by some people who knew me from my first DJ sets and tours 10 years before, the earliest days when I came to Europe. A couple of those conversations inspired me to repost my “Ich Bin Defekt” mix, an explosion of diasporic industrial soul and bass, the title of which came, funnily enough, from this image of a broken toy UN vehicle, presaging current failed aspirations of international cooperation (click to listen):
For further nightlife,Â I must shout out Osunlade‘s set, which took the entire audience to the church of house music –spiced with a masterful drop of a Prince remix and Yellow Magic Orchestra, each at the perfect moment. That had pretty much all the DJs in the buildingÂ at the front of the stage dancing. Herbert on Sunday played with aÂ live band whose music was surprisingly heartening andÂ anthemic, and I found the man himselfÂ a pretty charming and wittyÂ bandleader.
This back and forth of beauty, frustration, hope, and sufferingÂ felt likeÂ a microcosm, if maybe an unusually hopeful one. Europe is perhaps crumbling, and there areÂ up sides, both since the foundations were corrupt but alsoÂ since there areÂ ordinary people involved in beautiful projects. Elevate festival isÂ perhaps the kind of place that canÂ help prepare more people for how to respond creatively. At the same time it’s hard to see how a more fair and sustainableÂ lifeÂ can take shape without some sizable and unrecognizable redistribution of resources in the face of politicians literally calling for “fortress Europe. We’d all better get to imagining harder, I think, and listening to the people knocking down (or living outside) the walls.