I HAVE A FAIRLY SIMPLE THEORY ABOUT SUBCULTURES: they're no longer possible. Part of the process by which they became impossible was revealed to me in Edmonton in the early '80s, when a small clutch of hipster types at the radio station where I did an experimental show began listening exclusively to some band called Black Flag and espousing a philosophy called hardcore. I had been a teen punk in the late '70s, and even then it seemed false and derivative. How did these people justify their belief that one set of signs and symbols entirely dislocated from their original community, and filtered through the same mass media that everyone else made their lifestyle choices from, was in any way different? Thousands of similar enclaves of kids around the globe were aligning themselves with a dress code, accessorized with predigested opinions about politics and culture, like Trekkies, or feminists. Units were shifted in sufficient quantities to perpetuate the need for continued mainstream media coverage; all the while the kids somehow convinced themselves they were organic, unique and righteous: Express your rage at the system through your choice of purchases.
Most of the people who responded to punk in its initial, vague ingress into North American cultural consciousness (whether you believe the sweet potato traveled east to west or vice versa) were artists, intellectuals, queers and addicts — not necessarily all of the above, but already disenfranchised enough from consensus culture to recognize an open window when it came along. Punk was an amorphous thing, and was interpreted in a wide variety of ways — as can be gleaned from the better recent chronicles of the time (particularly Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk; England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond; and From the Velvets to the Voidoids: A Pre-Punk History for a Post-Punk World). All kinds of irregular, idiosyncratic modes of self-expression fell under the initial punk umbrella — most of which had been officially excised by the time of the hardcore Jugend's penetration into the marketplace. The bottom line was the establishment of a Temporary Autonomous Zone (coined by Hakim Bey) where these singular philosophies were free to proliferate in an atmosphere of unsupervised mutual regard. The last thing these punks wanted was to be told by parental types that they were good, important and contributing to society. Or so it seemed.
Flash forward to 20 years later with the Green Day/Rancid/Offspring cartoon punk revival and the weight of the aforementioned best-sellers making those hardcore teenyboppers seem authentic. Veterans of the Los Angeles punk scene that spawned such significant groups as X, Black Flag, the Go-Go's and the Minutemen feel bad that they are being undervalued in the Punk Rock 101 textbooks, and band together to present a sprawling archaeological survey of posters, set lists, snapshots, acetates, 45s and similar ephemera at Tom Patchett's Track 16 Gallery at Bergamot Station, the ostensible center of contemporary high art in Los Angeles. Patchett seems to be trying to atone for his contribution to '80s culture, the unwatchable sitcom Alf, by lending all the legitimacy money can buy to various disenfranchised subcultures.
While this is almost certainly laudable in the case of underrepresented ethnics like Ruben Ortez Torres and Manuel Ocampo, the benevolence starts to tarnish when directed at self-exiled factions like the cranky art gossipmongers of Coagula and the artists and scenesters of the Masque-era L.A. punk scene represented in “Forming.” Expanded from an earlier, more palatably guerrilla-flavored display at Exene Cervenkova's Silver Lake post-punk novelty store You've Got Bad Taste, “Forming” is at once exhaustive and disorganized. Loosely structured by a museologically correct chronology spanning the years 197682 (and displaying such hilarious provenances as “Collection of R. Bingenheimer,” “Collection of Belinda Carlisle” or my favorite, “Collection of the Weirdos”), the show wanders off into entire rooms full of peripherally relevant contemporaneous art — you've seen 80 million Raymond Pettibone drawings, you've seen 'em all — and finally unravels into a backroom showcase of current objets whose presence, while kind of charming, is wholly inexplicable.
When I started writing this review, I was tempted to do a “find-and-replace” on my L.A. Weekly review of MOCA's “Out of Actions” (last year's retrospective of performance-art relics), because both possess the same sense of misguided enshrinement of the letter over the spirit. Much like that show, “Forming” attempts to bestow institutional and historical authority on a creative sociological phenomenon whose very raison d'être was to testify to an entirely Other and oppositional form of bestowing meaning on experience, a meaning that recognized neither institutions nor history.
In spite of “Forming”'s evident celebratory intention, the implication of this posthumous official ratification is that punk failed — it lost and its carcass is displayed on the spikes of the fortress gates as a warning to others who might get ideas. The entire proceedings are thereby tainted with an inescapable and lightly nauseating undertone of hostility. But it's not the “Fuck you” of punk, it's the “Fuck you” of cops. The saddest aspect of this is the fact that the show was organized by players from the original cast. But then, “Forming” is permeated with sadness — aching with nostalgia for a vanished golden time, endearingly pathetic in its coat of tattered fliers, blurry Polaroids and warped ink-jet on foam-core text panels explaining how it all fits together and why it can never be again.
THIS IS ALL, I SUPPOSE, RELATIVELY HARMLESS AS LONG as it doesn't actually convince anybody. When I escorted a pair of 12- and 13-year-old contemporary punk girls to see the show, they weren't fooled for a minute (sample quote: “Where's the politics?”), although they each purchased a $30 dead-guy watercolor (Darby for Jenna; Sid for Dan Rae) from Tomata du Plenty's wall-o-art in the backroom. And, like “Out of Actions,” “Forming” — apart from a seriously fucked premise and lopsided curatorial decisions (anyone remember Savage Republic?) — is an educational and entertaining multimedia display. Operating essentially as illustrations of an as yet unwritten verbal narrative, with occasional anomolous bursts of artistic excellence — the “World Imitation Products” section, with splendid works by Steve Thomsen, Jeffrey Vallance and Michael Uhlenkott, is a particularly rewarding nugget of aesthetic goodness — the show tells a story, and tells it well. With a rich eye for detail and dynamic that epitomizes the postmodern tragedy of the dissipation of community in the glare of media attention (not to mention a kick-ass, though for the most part hypothetical, soundtrack), “Forming,” in all its abject, provincial humility, delirious patchwork of visual stimuli and noir humor, deserves to be deemed “good enough.”
But the bottom line is this: This show bears witness to the swift, efficient absorption and neutralization of punk subculture by the mainstream, an absorption that apparently produces a moral and aesthetic amnesia in its victims, and which has since accelerated to the point where as soon as two or three people start dressing differently from the rest, they're featured on Entertainment Tonight, ridiculed by Jay Leno and revived as an ironic shill to sell tchotchkes in the monthly Columbia House Record Club catalog before they can agree on a name for their movement. That the Los Angeles punk scene of the early '80s was a vital, anarchistic, communal, artistic uprising is self-evident. That anyone in these culturally malnutritious times should invest energy in fetishistic eulogizing at
the expense of even the slightest gesture of creative
insurgency — right now — is a poisonous betrayal of the whole point.
FORMING: The Early Days of L.A. Punk | Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through June 5