Unofficial Culture: the Radical is the new Norm [1]

I first stumbled across the term ‘unofficial culture’ whilst reading Colin Thuborn’s fantastically poetic take on the USSR in the dying days of the regime: ‘Among the Russians: from the Baltic to the Caucasus’[2]. Whilst travelling through the former USSR in his much admired and sought after Morris Minor (popular for its disparity from the habitual Soviet-made Lada or Muscovite), he meets the anti-establishment: dissidents and non-conformists. Groups whose writings manifest themselves through hundreds of “blurred carbon”[3] hand-typed pamphlets, which are then passed between “numberless surreptitious hands”[4] through the underground movements of Eastern Europe. One dissident states to Thuborn:

“We typed out the whole of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago with six carbons! One copy may go through thousands of hands. We can’t even know how many get passed on anonymously”.

With lingering and often extensive titles including ‘On the Existential and Religious Significance of Unofficial Culture’, these pamphlets were passed around in a flash of a whisper, quietly making their way from person to person.

Although the term ‘unofficial culture’ is a phrase that is used widely, it perhaps has special significance within totalitarian systems, referencing culture which goes against the state sanctioned ‘official’ culture. Putting their lives on the line in order to dissipate their message was a more risky action than it is today, but ‘unofficial culture’ can still be a relevant and powerful concept in the present day within the UK. Repudiating the deeply ingrained view that ‘culture’ is something that occurs only within a gallery, museum, theatre, music hall or cinema, the term ‘unofficial culture’ embraces not only the underground culture and protest movements of the politically disenfranchised, but also the kind of cultural happenings and interventions that perhaps aren’t permanent and perhaps have no economic value, Saatchi cash or glittering awards attached to them. Artistic happenings and street interventions on an everyday level are often a most powerful form of communication, whereby the fastest way to the middleman could be via the street.

Today in this tough economic climate we see the growing prominence of groups like the Occupy [5] movement, Avaaz[6] and 38 Degrees[7]. Highly organised, they offer a radical alternative to mainstream political organisations. Yet, how can this kind of protest manifest itself within the arts?

Since the 1960s and the dawn of the civil rights movement, art and culture have offered many criticisms, hopes and solutions to the irrationality and inadequacies of capitalist politics. This refusal to stand in line and be counted has seen artist groups like the Vienna based group WochenKlausur[8] intervene into everyday life to enact small-scale social improvements. Often in collaboration with local artists and community organisations, they effect change through interventionist means: from establishing pensions for sex workers in Zurich, providing medical care for the homeless of Vienna, hosting a free cinema program showing films chosen by ethnic minorities in Limerick, to more inventive schemes such as their ‘upcycling’ project, involving the recycling of discarded materials from art and museum exhibitions into useful objects that can then be used in local homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

This kind of interventionist art arguably takes its lead from the Russian Constructivists, Dada, and the Situationists and on to the activism of the Occupy movement of today. The deconstruction of the boundaries that keep art segregated from everyday life enables the opening up of dialogue and channels of communication between art forms and wider society, allowing for activity pitched at undermining the marginalisation caused by Capitalism.

This call to the streets for a real public experience of the arts is echoed in Guy Debord’s declaration: “Something that changes our way of seeing the streets is more important than something that changes our way of seeing paintings”[9]. The Situationists were the grand protagonists of the streets, signalling a total dissolution of the boundaries between art and life, the studio and the city, where interventions in public space should occur in a momentary, everyday fashion, not relegated to cultural calendars and trips to museums in the school holidays. This would, in practice, radically change the experience of daily life for the citizens of the city, connecting diverse activities: “Art with engineering, music with painting; poetry with design; fine art with propaganda; photographs with typography; diagrams with action; the studio with the street”[10].

The Situationist, Constant Nieuwenhuys, created blueprints for city of the future – New Babylon – which was aimed at stimulating a wholly creative lifestyle. In New Babylon there would be collective ownership of land and resources, whilst the automation of work by machines would mean freedom from labour and no daily routine for the city’s citizens, who would then be free to live a nomadic life. Constant proposed to use the urban surroundings as a vehicle for driving creativity, where buildings would be constructed from movable systems: parts would be easy to mount or dismount and could be utilised for a variety of means.

Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon, 1959-74

In a sense this utopian scheme was never expected to be built. Although it couldn’t quite be called a pipedream, Constant was well aware of the radical nature of his plans. Yet what he and the Situationists were able to do was to open up Marxist dialogue, initiating a call to arms, equipped with paintbrushes in hand and the freedom of the city as their canvas.

It is as a neon sign in the dark, an immediate slap in the face, forging democratic spaces through the spontaneous, the ad-hoc and the unpredictable. This kind of rough and ready attitude can work to create organic links between people, performers and place and is arguably a more democratic dissemination of culture than through conventional means, proving a solid relationship between art and society.

On a recent trip to the Venice Architecture Biennale I was struck by the considerable presence of pavilions dedicated to self-build and community projects. In particular the US Pavilion, Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good, which offered bottom-up solutions to urban problems. Often informal, guerrilla, temporary, open source or hands-on, these architectural projects aim to create new opportunities and social facilities for the public at large. In an age when we are increasingly seeing the privatisation of our cities (the ‘regeneration’ of Gateshead town centre by Tesco and the privatisation of Liverpool’s main shopping streets through the Liverpool One development are just two examples that spring to mind), we must begin to look for alternative ways to ‘take back’ the streets.  Whether this is through street performance, public art installations or the “urban farms, guerilla bike lanes and temporary architecture”[11] documented in the US Pavilion, we must aim to slice through boundaries, both physically and mentally, merging diverse activities and forging connections between critical mass bike rides, pop-up galleries, the man on a pedestal at Speaker’s Corner, the woman on the street selling the Big Issue.

US Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale 2012

Showing no particular disregard for state planning, the projects documented in Spontaneous Interventions aim to build on these connections, taking issues of communalism into their own hands, giving voice to the diverse ways that people create and live within their environments. From the sober to the quirky, the utilitarian to the symbolic, the material to the virtual, these projects all share a vital optimism, some verging on utopianism, and an urge to venture outside of the conventional and predictable. These projects are a sharp rebuke to the endless Barratt Homes style developments that litter our cities, and glossy corporate art fit only for squares in financial districts, for bankers to sit on during their breaks, and for the corporate nondescript to bask in. Massive Arts Council funding and millions of pounds pumped into squeaky clean stainless steel and glass pseudo artworks, which are nothing more than expensive bits of interior design, Ikea-like sculptures picked at random from some sort of ‘art catalogue’. Anish Kapoor’s stark and sterile Orbit is one that languishes in the mind, whose damning muteness is a kick in the teeth to the working heritage of the East End of London. This helter skelter-like, rollercoaster of a piece of sculpture looks like a bad piece of noughties superstar architecture: all drama and no guts. Take the £15 ticket price to get up the tower – although condemned by Kapoor – this hardly reflects the government pushed, and rather depressingly comical title of the ‘People’s Games’. Instead it only serves to highlight the shameless alliance between politics, art and business.

We must move away from these expensive, flag waving and gesture making empty statements, and return to grassroots projects, as realised in the US Pavilion. Projects that may be less significant in scale, yet which possess an optimistic willingness to venture outside the conventional ‘official’ cultural practice, exercising fresh tactics; fusing community, collectivism and change to “make the world a more sustainable, accessible and inclusive place”[12].

Yet it is distressing that many great artists and performers still have to operate in the gap between what is seen as ‘official culture’ and ‘unofficial culture’. I recently went to see the play Minsk 2011: A reply to Kathy Acker by the Belarus Free Theatre[13]. Using theatre to bring attention to the plight of Belarus – so called Europe’s ‘Last Dictatorship’ – their company, along with their plays and performers, have been forced out of mainstream Belarusian culture and government controlled theatres. This is indeed Unofficial Culture; they now dissipate their message hidden in houses, wooded areas and cafes.

Opposing President Alexander Lukashenko’s 18 year rule, Minsk 2011: A reply to Kathy Acker was forged as an affecting reaction to the censorship of the arts and the brutal suppression of political opposition in Minsk. Taboo subjects such as sex, prostitution and homosexuality are also tackled, highlighting the many contradictions of Belarusian society: as night falls a worker’s canteen is turned into a club of debauchery, lap dancers must be officially ‘approved’ by the state through an interview process, prostitutes are arrested and, when released, told that they must really ‘work’ the streets and are handed shovels to clear the snow in the dead of night. Protest this play is, but disloyal to the group’s beloved Belarus it is not. At the fringes of the play is a deep running vein of utopianism. Although negative about the country in its existing state, in the play’s closing act, the Belarus Free Theatre opens a peep hole into a country that may begin anew. As the actors describe their tumultuous lives one by one: a detainee of prison or exile, they are still able to envision a new Minsk, free of control and suppression.

Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, Belarus Free Theatre, Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne, June 2012

This hint of utopianism is something that we now need. Though a concept that has long been ridiculed as a futile, fantasy filled pipedream, we must preserve this ideology and use it as a driving force to make small scale changes to the way that we operate as a society.

For the Belarus Free Theatre the question of whether art can change society is not relevant, there is no alternative but to speak out, whatever the cost. Although the situation is different for us in the UK than it is for the organisations operating under the watchful eyes of the Belarusian one party state, or it was for the Russian underground writers in the 1980s, in all circumstances there are no excuses for dogmatically accepting the status quo. We are currently experiencing one of the largest attacks on the poor and disenfranchised, the disabled and the unemployed since the dawn of the welfare state. Art and culture can play a major part in changing perceptions and challenging assumptions. Through artistic creation we have a unique opportunity to disturb the presupposed separation between form and content by disrupting, reclaiming and reinventing our built environments and cultural practices. The normative must become radical[14]; we must begin to take note that Speaker’s Corner can play just as important a role in the arts as going to see a grand, cash cow in the Turbine Hall of the Tate. Whether you murmur your protest through a Chinese Whisper in the backstreets of Belarus or shout it out on a pedestal in Hyde Park, the vital thing is to say it and do it.

[1] Alex Niven, ‘The Quietus’, The Fantastic Hope <; [Accessed 18 September 2012]

[2] Colin Thubron, Among the Russians: From the Baltic to the Caucasus (London: Penguin, 1985), p. 88

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[9] In K. Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), p. 42

[10] John Berger, Art and Revolution (New York: Pantheon Books, 1969),pp. 37-38

[11] Spontaneous Interventions <; [Accessed 18 September 2012]

[12] Spontaneous Interventions <; [Accessed 18 September 2012]

[14] See Alex Niven’s essay ‘The Quietus’in his blog The Fantastic Hope ( for a wider discussion of Normative Radicalism, where the Radical should become the new Norm.


One comment

  1. Gemma Hall · · Reply

    Really engaging and interesting post, Julia. You should be a guest lecturer on my course! Can’t wait to hear more about Russia when you get back. Gemma

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