DJ Ripley on the Elevate Festival, wrapping up Europe

Ripley here, just returned from a few days in Graz, Austria, where I was a guest 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 across djs, producers, live bands and acts that combine all or some of the above. The festival also has an awards process granting an award (including 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 themes are a strong concern about the (mis)uses of technology, and a strong concern for climate change. This year both were increasingly overshadowed by Europe’s current failure to address the human rights of people at (and moving through) its borders. We all saw the failure taking shape in real time, as thousands of people were fleeing near and through Graz itself, across the nearby Slovenian border, and via various accounts of state and NGO responses, such as fellow participant Christian Payne’s encounter with the Red Cross one night:

One of the most interesting dynamics 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):  colonialism & 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 that support the insiders mainly refuse the debt they owe people (as well as violating their own human rights treaties, and violating human decency and compassion).  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 were 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 festivals 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 Helmets (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 artists’ role in dealing with the challenges facing the world and communities within it. On board for the discussion were people who mix art/provocation/activism/political commitment in various ways:  The Yes Men (US), Antonino D’Ambrosio (US), myself –  DJ Ripley (US), Elisabeth Mayerhofer (AT) John Jordan (UK, Co-founder of Reclaim the Streets and the Clown Army ) – via Videostream, Kalyanee Mam (KH) – via Videostream, HERBERT (UK) – via Videostream.  We had an interesting discussion. One of the ongoing tensions was the familiar “we’re all in this together”/“let’s not use ‘us and them’ language” (raised by many especially in the audience), vs. “you can’t forget who your enemies are” (that phrase in particular from John Jordan, initially speaking about the cooptation of radical art of the 1970s by the establishment).  I attempted to point out that “enemy” 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. Some 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 suggested that 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, including 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: DJ Funk live (Dance Mania/US), Bok Bok (Night Slugs/UK), RP Boo (Planet Mu, Honest Jon’s Records/US), Venus X (GHE20G0TH1K‬/US), MikeQ (Fade To Mind/US), and yours truly DJ Ripley (Dutty Artz/US) kicking off the festivities. It was an honor to be on it, and it brought out tensions akin to those faced by the daytime program. Each act is unique, building a roster that challenges mainstream 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 approaches 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 to the Forum, I caught some great conversations about convivial technology which included some thoughtful and experienced discussion of how technology works in and for different communities, and also a report and conversation from Augsburg’s Grandhotel Cosmopolis, which is a project employing and housing refugees who 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 that 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, 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 building at the front of the stage dancing. Herbert on Sunday played with a live band whose music was surprisingly heartening and anthemic, and I found the man himself a pretty charming and witty bandleader.

This back and forth of beauty, frustration, hope, and suffering felt like a microcosm, if maybe an unusually hopeful one. Europe is perhaps crumbling, and there are up sides, both since the foundations were corrupt but also since there are ordinary people involved in beautiful projects. Elevate festival is perhaps the kind of place that can help prepare more people for how to respond creatively. At the same time it’s hard to see how a more fair and sustainable life 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.