In January, I commented on a blog post on Saving Country Music about the creation of parodies when punk bands “go country.” I referenced anarchism and its relationship to musical movements throughout history. Anarchism has recently regained public attention because of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Over the past 2 plus years, I have had lengthy discussions on the subject of music, art, film, and anarchism with outlaw filmmaker Marc Littler of Slowboat Films. In July of 2010, I met up with him in Frankfurt, Germany. His beautiful and moving film, The Folk Singer, had been out for a year and he was working on his next project Kingdom of Survival, a dystopian look at the current condition of our world and the survival tactics of a few visionary pioneers. Anarchism is central to the plot of this film and it led me to revisit our conversations over the past year.
Well, probably the first question I would ask you is to explain for the readers how your own interests evolved over the years in relation to your film production at Slowboat Films. You’ve been heavily involved with many of the arts throughout your life…poetry, music, video production, music production, film, literature…and many of the R/N/Z readers know your work in particular from their shared interest in the musicians (Scott H. Biram, Possessed by Paul James, Tom VandenAvond, Reverend Deadeye, and others) featured in The Folksinger. But from The Folk Singer, you moved on to the topic of anarchism in Kingdom of Survival. For many kids coming up through the 70s and 80s, anarchism was directly connected to punk music. So the link between this political/economic/social system and the arts has been well established for a while. How did this transpire for you? Meaning, how did your attention or your gaze shift as it did?
The status quo in general never worked for me. From my early teens on I found its manifestations in popular art and music most sickening. Thus I became naturally drawn to the rock ‘n’ roll and art underground. The Kingdom of Survival is often described as a departure from my previous films, some of which are music related. I disagree. I think it is a logical progression. I was always looking in the margins whether that applies to music or to philosophy or politics. I was forced to go looking in the margins because what our culture had to offer at the surface not only didn’t entice me it nauseated me. In response to your question regarding anarchism: First of all I am obsessed with language and anarchism is probably one of the most misunderstood and abused terms in the English language. Everyone thinks they know what the term means but very few actually do. Anarchism is not synonymous with chaos. To the contrary: Anarchism in its simplest definition means self-government and that’s precisely what interests me. It applies to my films, it applies to my relationships, it applies to how I have designed my life – In short I refuse to be ruled.
Can you articulate what you feel to be the relationship between music and anarchism? You mention the “underground” aspect of the music world. In many cases, certain genres or forms of artistic expression are relegated to the margins or the underground because they are perceived to be a threat to the status quo – which you mention here – but the status quo in our society is dominated for the most part by capitalism and the capitalist project. Do you believe that the anarchist “way” of not being ruled can find its place in the world of contemporary art business practices? Is there really a way for artists, musicians, and filmmakers to do what they do without getting caught up in the trappings of the capitalist machine?
There is no connection between the two per se. Music is simply a medium and it comes down to how the makers of music interpret it. It can be saccharine sweet drivel or it can be a fierce emotional and even intellectual tool that has the capacity to transport meaning, inspire and infuse a rebellious spirit. Take a look at Woodie Guthrie – I think he is a perfect example. Is music per se anti-fascist? No. But Guthrie transformed the medium through his work into a fascist slaying tool. Also most underground music is absolutely no threat to the capitalist system or the status quo. Most musicians are utterly nonpolitical. The term “underground” usually implies being marginalized often due to the lack of economic potential. Unfortunately a lot of openly political music is an insult to the ears. I would love to hear some of my friends, let’s say a Possessed by Paul James make a political record…great music that clearly takes a stand.
In response to the second part of your question: Of course there is a way to be a practicing anarchist in the world of contemporary art business practices. Take a look at my friends Davide and Matteo from Insideout Music. They have two successful bands, they run the finest analogue recording studio in Europe, and they have their own art department and now their own record company. All self-governed. Business occurs between them and their fans. Live gigs alone would not pay the bills but the combination of live music, recording music, and releasing music does. And there is no pyramidal hierarchy – it’s completely horizontal. Equal rights, equal responsibilities. Living a self-governed life comes with a lot of responsibility and requires thorough organization. You’ll work harder this way, but you know who and what you work for.
In regards to film:
All I can talk about is my own experience – I’ve been doing it for ten years and my company has never been in better shape. As a matter of fact the more I learn about anarchist practices the more the company thrives. We cut out the middleman. Fuck i-tunes, to hell with Netflix. They’re Satan’s spawn. We make the films and our customers buy from us directly. No middleman, no lawyers and a better deal for the fans and for us.
If you draw from the feminist perspective, one could argue that the personal is political. So for many of today’s underground musicians, their heartfelt lyrics are expressions of their personal struggles with power or senses of obligation that tear at their souls. I think Possessed by Paul James could qualify for this category. However, our little “movement” or “tribe” could surely use more bands that are more collectively political with intent such as Cletus Got Shot, for example. Can you name some musical acts, artists, or filmmakers through the years that you can say you believe executed a successful blend of the political and artistic? Maybe just a few of your favorites?
In response to your comments about film…Have you ever considered writing about this? Do you think there could be a “master plan” by which those of us seeking TAZ and exit from oppressive systems of power in the marketplace can follow in order to bypass these exploitative systems? What ways could others interested in producing artwork of quality, substance, and political significance learn from you or your analog studio friends?
A few years ago I would have referred to myself as a transcendentalist. The notion of being a political being was beneath me. It seemed vulgar, banal, corrupt, and was not helping me reach beatitude. Well, I was wrong. Everything is political. We make dozens of political decisions every day without knowing it. What we buy, what we eat, who we work for etc. We often confuse the term “political” with the sad rigmarole of political parties the same we say we hate religion although we actually hate church. Church is man made, religion is transcendental. The real problem is that we are living in a period of corrupt ideas. We don’t need new values. We need new ideas. Anarchism is a good starting point but merely ONE step of the way.
While touring the U.S. I noticed a fundamental difference between American audiences and European audiences:
Americans tend to want the bottom line, the essence, the master plan – they want to follow a leader or a “way”. What or who is the clean solution that solves all problems? Well, there is none. All steps toward creating a fairer and more progressive society will be laborious, messy and very contradictory.
As to what one can do to maximize one’s self-determination and self-reliance is simply to start. There’s a lot of complaining going on and a lot of people are adversed to hard work. Start working at designing your own life, whether you aim to maximize your freedom temporarily or permanently. Get off the couch and start. This applies to art, politics, your work life and life in general. If you wait for someone to hand you the blueprint, you’ll die waiting.
The solution will be a multitude of small solutions. Almost invisible at first but ultimately a myriad of micro-solutions will change the world we live in. One look at history and we should know that our species has had bad experiences with “big” solutions.
In regards to what a music fan can do for example. I like Casey Weber’s approach. He lives in a tiny godforsaken town and it saddened him that he could not see his favorite bands play live. So what did he do? He simply invited them and their fans to come to his house. That’s what I mean when I say getting of the couch and starting. Everyone can do it – there is simply no excuse, if you can think it, you can do it.
Ah, that last comment brings me to another question I have about anarchism for you. In Kingdom of Survival you interview Sasha Lilley. In response to that interview, I had a conversation with Ben Whitmer regarding the difference between a collectivist and an individualist approach to political action. This tension between autonomy and collective obligation or commitment is very problematic. Casey Weber did something amazing out on his deck. I’ve been there and experienced it. It is awesome! But he didn’t do it alone. He has had a lot of support from other members of his community, friends, and fans.
In my own Occupy group, we have struggled with the tension between individual goals and plans and collective participation. One person comes up with an idea and wants all of the rest of us to get on board. This doesn’t always work. And sometimes, in the end, there’s animosity because of one person’s attempt to co-opt and “own” the project or a sense of one’s labor having been forgotten and dismissed. In your film production process, how do you manage to work through this tension? Are you “the boss”? If so, how do you reconcile this with your political or existential beliefs?
Do it for yourself and if you have the ability to organize with others by all means do – it increases your potential and reach. But regardless even if you’re merely doing it for yourself it is better than not doing it all. The key is to lose the excuses. People waste a lot of time and energy on explaining to themselves and others why all actions toward creating a better world for themselves and others are futile so why even bother starting. This type if defeatism is what makes the status quo so strong. Apathy empowers the wicked.
As to the dilemma of organizing in groups:
Collective action is powerful but once again: All steps toward creating a fairer and more progressive society will be laborious, messy and very contradictory.
In my company I steer the ship. Anarchism is not adverse to temporary leadership.
I have certain skills my crew does not possess, thus I lead. However they often possess skills I do not possess. In those cases they lead. It’s a model of assigning tasks based on talent and skill. A bit like marriage. He who is best suited for the task leads – temporarily.
We all have different gifts and in music or art or film, this becomes readily apparent. As such, being a creative “leader” sounds like it would be contrary to the ethos or spirit of anarchism. And yet, you have demonstrated this to be untrue. I’ve met many of your co-creators over the past few years and I never got the impression that they felt as if they were constrained by your leadership. How do you manage this for yourself? Do you feel like a daily return to the spiritual aspect of your life helps you with this process? It seems that too often in Western society that leaders begin with the best of intentions, and then wind up dominating and controlling and leveling tyranny against those who support them.
Our structure is based on the pirate ship.
The captain gets democratically elected and only has authority in combat (while shooting the film) and flight (while drinking after shooting). If he abuses his power the crew feed him to the fish. When my spirituality wanes I get weak, when it returns I get stronger. There’s nothing esoteric about it – for me it’s very practical. If you distance yourself from the natural world you deteriorate. Once you re-connect you are reminded of the oneness of all things. Also bear in mind: often-good intentions have lead to misery. Idealists are often dangerous not only to tyrants but often to themselves and their own people. Life is an experiment, there’s no road map.
And I wanted to call this article “An Interview with Captain Rand McNally!”
I am El Commandante – Corsair of the outlaw highway.
Damn! OK, so in speaking of pirates and pirate culture, many of our collective fantasies are rooted in the lifestyles and cultural mannerisms of “others.” Pirates are exotic and subversive, Indians are the raving outlaws of our North American history, in your new film, the follow up to Kingdom of Survival, you will interview Ward Churchill. Can you tell me what prompted you to connect with the indigenous activist/rebel/outlaw in this next creative project?
The new film is based on the Croatan myth. I’ll be seeking alternatives in the proverbial “Croatan” – outside of my own culture. I need to see the world I inhabit with new eyes and my culture seems utterly lost at present. So I’m going back in time and am exploring radical aboriginal visions. I have no interest in nation states, races, ideologies etc. my life is a mosaic and right now I’m looking to find a piece or two within the realms of indigenous philosophy and spirituality. However being the Teutonic pirate that I am I avoid drifting off into new age ethno kitsch at all costs.
The new film is also an exercise in anarchist financing. We shall attempt to finance the entire project, which at present seems rather ambitious through the tribe. Time will tell if this is a viable option and we’ll see how far one can realize an ambitious project like this through financial solidarity. Often times the ideals wane when it comes to whipping out the wallet. However people need to understand that they must do their part to create an alternative to today’s mainstream culture.
So you’re considering exploring self-governance and non-hierarchical models throughout history or in the contemporary indigenous world? How do you see the Native Americans in the US as a part of this project? Do you see evidence of radical visions and alternative socio/economic/political systems working within their communities at present?
Your comments on the anarchist financing are most intriguing. I think that the model we have always followed is so different. And I wish you all of the best on this endeavor. I think galvanizing support has been something in our local group that has hindered so many cool projects from getting off of the ground. Everyone wants to be the creative force. We all have good ideas. And it is hard to convince others to put their ideas aside and lend their assets (financial or labor or otherwise) toward your project. How do you get people to get on board with this?
I don’t see them working at present but I am quite impressed by the sophistication of the Iroquois confederacy during the 17th and 18th century. The way they organized their communities and lives seems to me far superior to most western models. Matter of fact the first feminists were inspired by Iroquois women who were regarded as equals by their male contemporaries and who were involved in tribal politics. I am also interested in the survival tactics of the Seminole who incorporated runaway slaves and poor whites into their tribe and who were never conquered. In essence they became a maroon tribe and were early examples of a multi-cultural society.
To the next question:
Unfortunately we don’t all have good ideas and most lack the seriousness and dedication to pull off ambitious projects and in the process kill all faith people have in grassroots culture.
My model is not really new – not even to me.
Most of our projects were financed from within the community.
Over the past 7 years we managed to raise 250k that way and have worked with over 200 people usually on a deferred or no payment basis.
I see no reason why it should not work again.
In response to how do you get people on board:
I notice that you keep asking “but how?”
I think the facts speak for themselves.
I do not speak of plans unrealized.
I speak of plans that already have been successfully realized – we are now simply taking the next step.
You must live up to your promise.
If you claim you’ll be making a film you better do it or people lose faith and figure “there’s just another talker”.
I have announced 7 films and we have made 7 films.
People take notice and they invest faith in you.
And that keeps the ball rolling.
Wonderful. I could go on forever but I’ll start with these questions and put something together for R/N/Z. Let’s do another chat later after you accomplish more toward this new film and I’ll whet everyone’s appetite for what is coming next! Thanks again!