The Theme As Medium: Themed Environments in New Urban Subculture
By Nina Franz
Nina Franz was a resident of the Heartside Neighborhood from 2001 until 2006, where she lived above what is currently the Division Ave Arts Cooperative at 115 S. Division. Originally from Germany, Franz moved to Grand Rapids and she received a multi-disciplinary education focusing on how social and political policies effect people and culture at Grand Valley State University. She also was a founder of SWIM gallery, which formerly occupied the old Elite Restaurant. Her artwork and ideas have had influence within the artistic community that now inhabits this area.
The following was written in early 2005, as Division Ave was beginning to finally receive attention from the city and Dwelling Place as a redeemable place for arts in the city to thrive. Many of themed sub-cultural phenomena that Franz discusses are precursors to what is now the Avenue for the Arts.
- Ben Schaafsma
In the following, I will look at a selected number of sub-cultural phenomena in relation to theming. For reasons of practicality, my focus will be on the downtown area of Grand Rapids, Michigan, around South Division Avenue and its emergent music—and cultural scene. As an average American city that has suffered greatly from the effect of suburbanization and that currently experiences, quite in line with the national trend, a recent urban revival (even so on a small scale), this sample will serve well in illuminating cultural developments in light of the larger societal structures touched on by Mark Gottdiener’s study The Theming of America.
In recent years much attention has been paid to the themed environment as a way to create meaning. As the function of the traditional themed environment of the classic urban city has been nearly completely replaced by artificially conceived settings of malls and other spaces under rigid corporate surveillance, “theming” has become more and more important in filling spaces with cultural content that are otherwise devoid of any meaning with which we can associate. In The Theming of America, Gottdiener goes in great detail to describe the effects of theming on the manufactured environments of American consumer society. While the great majority of middle class consumers has abandoned the urban centers and fled to the suburbs, new artificial environments have taken on the functions traditionally attributed to the city.
In an ironic turn, the latest efforts to revive city centers draw on the very practices of theming that initiated their decline. While malls at first had to be fashioned after the urban lifestyle in competition with traditional city life, which led to the near complete abandonment of inner cities as middle class spaces for consumption and living, the example of Mayor Guilliani’s successful effort to revive Manhattan’s center shows that now city administrators draw on what Gottdiener calls “Disneyfication” to make inner cities appealing once more for the changed tastes of the mass of middle class consumers (Gottdiener, p. 131). While Gottdiener’s study is successful in explaining the massive changes in mainstream consumer culture, his investigation falls short on explaining important other, non-corporate developments that also take place within the realms of urban culture in relation to theming. An aspect of theming that misses from Gottdiener’s study is the way in which sub and counter cultural groups make use of themes to create their own meaningful systems, or to oppose or playfully subvert the symbols of mass consumer culture.
In recent years, downtown Grand Rapids has become the stage for a number of interesting cultural developments that deserve commentary. Before I move on to the main discussion however, a few words on the downtown area itself. Although in immediate proximity to the city’s more respectable business district, the area around South Division Avenue has for decades been considered a no-go for suburban families and their offspring. In the post-war era, Division Street had suffered the classic case of urban flight. A lively shopping district up until the 1940s, this part of town was practically abandoned by the middle class headed for the suburbs in the post-war period. Since then, most buildings have stood empty, safe for an assortment of soup kitchens, churches, dingy bars, Good Will Stores, and social services for the homeless.
Recently, the city has received some attention by municipalities for its inception of a new scheme of downtown revival, which has been conspicuously christened the “Cool-cities Project.” It seems as if city officials have come to the conclusion that a functional cultural life is beneficial for creating a healthy environment for citizens to live in . Thus, in order to re-birth the rather bleak-looking downtown area as a “cool city,” the municipality decided to subsidize housing and studio spaces for young artists in formerly abandoned buildings along South Division Avenue. It is interesting to note that these city-officials, quite self-consciously aware of the effect of a “cool” theming scheme, chose this approach. Unlike for instance Mayor Guilliano’s method of “Disneyfication,” these officials chose a more “natural,” non-corporate way of reviving the downtown, by inviting specifically those people to the area that are generally more resistant to the corporate interests, creative in their own right, and thereby offer a more genuine and interesting addition to the city than artificial themed corporate plans. In the following pages, I will pay more close attention to the latter group.
Long before city officials caught wind of the potential cultural re-development, small, independent venues, were already drawn to the Division Street area, for inexpensive rent, convenient central location, and an abundance of space in the abandoned, multi-storied, brick buildings of the former commercial district. But the appeal of the downtown area can also be seen in terms of theme. Generally, most sub-cultural developments in America arise in contrast to the commercial mainstream culture typically set in suburbs and malls. It is thus only logical that the downtown area, as the manifest antithesis of this realm, becomes the stage for this kind of cultural response. Adding to that, in terms of theming Division Street, with its run-down Victorian-era architecture, reputation for crime, delinquency and vague notion of danger, makes for a theme of urban life, and experienced reality that completely lacks from the lives of suburban residents, and is radically opposed to the fabricated dollhouse harmony of the suburbs. The appeal of the inner city to suburban youths (and its commercial exploitation for example through the catering of urban Black identity to the white suburban consumers of the MTV generation) has already been pointed out by writers like Sharon Zukin (see Zukin, 2004).
There are three venues on Division Avenue that are relevant for this discussion: Two coffee-shops that host musical performances, Skeletones and Morningstar 76, and the Division Avenue Arts Cooperative (DAAC), a cooperatively-run, music and art venue with no intentions of making profit. Skeletones defines itself as a “Christian punk rock” coffee shop, and draws a considerable crowd of suburban minors, kids on skateboards who look like almost accurate copies of 1970s’ punks as seen on TV, minus the real signs of physical deterioration and neglect. “Skeletones kids” generally look very well taken care of, with spotless plaid pants, deliberately placed silver chains, faded jeans and much hair product. Punk style has found its way into the suburban mall through stores like Hot Topic—a sanitized, commercialized version of the original style of the Vivienne Westwood-inspired Sex Pistols. In the Skeletones parking lot, they can be observed to come in flocks in 4-door minivans or family-SUVs, jumping on the skateboard, apparently in a hurry to leave any reminder of suburbia behind. Although it is easy to scoff at the self-conscious “style” practiced by Skeletones' customers, it should not be forgotten that theirs is still one of the more successful attempts to subvert mainstream culture from within, and probably the only sort of rebellion available given the limited semiotic repertoire of the suburb.
Skelletones. 133 S. Division
Skeletones is the most intentionally themed environment of the venues that are subject to this study. Just like its teenage customer base, the establishment tries to reproduce a look that resembles the punk movement of the 1970s, but there are obvious problems of authenticity. Designed to draw on the crowd of semi-rebellious teens, the place is above all a profit-driven enterprise. It lacks any of the real dirt, absurdity and hedonism that the Punks of the 1970s were so fond of. The furniture and interior evokes Starbucks more than Johnny Rotten, and drinks are priced at $3 to $5, easily affordable to the suburban customer base and expensive enough to keep out the homeless population. To Gottdiener, “themed environments are segregated and specialized according to class, race, space and gender” (p. 168). While gender does not really seem to play a significant role in the theming of Skeletones, the other aspects hold true. In addition, through Gottdiener’s method, Skeletones is revealed to be a themed environment guided by corporate interest, it is urban culture but “Disneyfied” and “mall-ified” according to the taste of members of the white middle class. In addition to that, Skeletones, just as the mall, is a privatized space under commercial surveillance. Whoever does not qualify as a consumer and doesn’t afford the one-drink minimum is excluded. In addition, the “theme” serves as a filter that repels everyone who does not identify with it, leaving Skeletones customers to be a highly homogenous group in terms of style, age, social class, and ethnicity. Although the place looks like a paradox to the outside observer (especially in respect to its purported evangelical mission of promoting Christianity, but also pretending evil), it attracts a great number of customers, and is probably the most financially successful venture on South Division at the time .
Morningstar 76. Formerly at 10 Weston.
The second coffee shop/music venue in the area, only 2.5 blocks down from Skeletones, is the second edition of Morningstar 76, which is located in Grand Rapids’ Eastown. Morningstar 76 is more interesting as a sub-cultural space because it is not as profit-oriented, and draws on a more diverse customer base. After the owners moved into the space, they added some cheap chairs and tables, used couches, and undemanding doodle-art on the walls and left the place otherwise relatively untouched. There is no artificial theming involved as at Skeletones; however, the shabbiness of the interior produces a theme of its own, that might well be perceived as authenticity in comparison. Morningstar is much less selective in its customer base, the prices are reasonable, and the lack of intentional theming makes it an acceptable environment to a wider range of people.
On an average morning, the place is filled with a diverse crowd from a wide range of economic backgrounds; high school kids, college students, homeless people, local artists and unsuccessful filmmakers. At night, the average is slanted slightly more toward the high-school age, with urban coffee shops in the US often serving as bar substitutes for minors. Because, at least for a while, Morningstar was one of the only places in the city that offered free wireless internet access, it attracted quite an interesting mix consisting of college students, business people, and designer types, united in physical connection to the keys of their laptop computers and the world wide web. Although Morningstar is a private and commercial space, it functions almost like public space. Surveillance is kept at a minimum. With the exception of occasional expulsion of the most rowdy types by the management, there is little or no filtering. Like Skeletones, Morningstar frequently hosts punk rock shows, or other musical performances, but its main purpose is in serving coffee and giving shelter to the homeless or the chronically discontent.
DAAC. 115 S. Division
The third and final venue that is subject to this study is the Division Avenue Arts Cooperative. Founded in 2003, the place has been run primarily as a music venue, with occasional art exhibitions. The DAAC has become the stage for probably the most ingenious and interesting projects, a regular venue for the local music scene and nationally and internationally known musicians outside the mainstream. It is interesting to note that in terms of theming, the DAAC is a relatively neutral space. The high brick walls are kept empty except for occasional exhibitions of local artwork, and the room is empty except for the stage and a table for band merchandize and flyers. The reason for this relative lack of theming is in part because of the cooperative way the venue is run. The DAAC's “About” web page reads: “We value diversity, democracy, and creativity. We strive to represent the community with open and accessible involvement. We encourage fairness through non-hierarchal structure and an emphasis on the group. We value new and different creative perspectives.” (http://thedaac.org/about.php)
While this description is sure to be a mildly idealized, publicity version with an open eye on potential grant-givers (the DAAC has been working on attaining non-profit status), it is clear that there is neither a strong singular interest group, nor any sense of commercial interest in the way it is run. Because the DAAC is run by a number of different people, and planning occurs democratically through weekly meetings at the space, it has managed to remain open to a range of tastes, which is in turn beneficial because it can thereby host a wide range of musical performers. Of course this diversity is still extremely limited, mainly on the range of tastes represented by the offspring of the white middle class. Whether intended or not, just like at Skeletones, the people that are most at home on Division Avenue are excluded from the venue, even if they cared for the music, because they cannot afford the $5 door fee. This creates a stark contrast between white middle class on the inside and low-income ethnic diversity outside the building.
The DAAC has established a number of performing regulars. I have chosen to focus on a limited number of the musical formations that I find most interesting and relevant in terms of theming. It has come to my attention that, while the DAAC as a themed environment, is relatively devoid of cultural symbols or signs, some of the more interesting performers stand out through their use of themes. Local performing artists with names like LSDudes, Sensual Armed Forces, Cat Time, or Mister Squid make creative use of themes on such a sophisticated level that one could argue that the “theme” has become their primary expressive medium. With attention to this phenomenon, I would argue that in a society that, as Gottdiener has shown, is becoming more and more dependent on theming as a means to negotiate identity, sub-cultural forms of artistic expression use the themes presented to them in pop-culture and the mainstream media to create a humorous and ingenious response of their own.
Probably the most impressive example of this phenomenon within the local scene is the formation LSDudes. The group, as the name already implies, takes a lowbrow approach, drawing from the wealth of 1970s and 80s pop-culture references. Their music is mostly electronically generated, with lots of keyboard and synth effects that recall the era of disco and glamour, hair metal and psychedelica. The result is an ironic and intentionally cheesy collage of themes that seem vaguely familiar to a generation that was not quite old enough to live through the era itself and plays with the nostalgia of audience members in their 30s and 20s alike. Thus, the music itself works primarily through the evocation of themes in the memories of audience members; the sound is not new, but the way it is reassembled in an ironical play on cheesiness, nostalgia, and disco revival. Adding to that, LSDudes performances are not complete without elaborate video collages that go along with songs and are projected on stage during the performance. Thus during an LSDudes theme song, a black kitty-face will be floating amid psychedelic patterns and images recalling the 70s drug culture, alternating with images from daily television shows, office workers and housewives moving along with the beat of the music to create an irresistible comical effect.
Another local performance based group with the suggestive title Sensual Armed Forces makes use of the same retro themes of outdated mainstream pop-culture, keyboards and heavy metal guitars. Even more than LSDudes, the Sensual Armed Forces draws its appeal almost entirely from their theme-based performance. Here, instead of video collage, the effect is created through costumes and gadgets. S.A.F. has created its own mythology of bizarre references to what Gottdiener would identify as “oriental” and “nostalgia” themes from popular folklore. On stage, the mock-divinity of the Sensual Armed Commander is worshipped in form of a large painting of an Indian god with six arms and the head of a British army officer. The members of S.A.F. are dressed up in tight outfits and sleeveless shirts that recall the gay disco culture of the 80s, tropical helmets like the one worn by the Commander in the painting, or Zorro masks. Performances also include the appearance of a male dancer in drag whose role seems to be in violating the personal space of audience members, adding a touch of intimacy to the sensual experience.
While performance groups like LSDudes and Sensual Armed Forces could be dismissed as pure entertainment and comedy (and of course they are both), their strength as cultural expression cannot be entirely shoved aside. Theirs is an often hilarious, sometimes intelligent, mockery of mainstream and subculture that is welcomed by their audience for lacking any serious pretensions and providing a radical alternative to the bland messages of mainstream culture. In effect, their use of themes makes use of what sociologists have called “bricolage,” the “structures, ‘improvised’ responses to an environment,” which “serve to establish homologies and analogies between the ordering of nature and that of society” (Hebdige, 1979, p. 103); only in this case, mainstream culture (or society generally) is understood as “nature,” humorously reproduced in sub-cultural expression, which takes the place of “society” in the definition. Thus subculture takes the process that anthropologists have originally attributed to “savages” versus “civilization” one step further, by seeing its own identity as civilization which is negotiated against the surrounding nature/society.
For the consumers of this kind of subculture, who then escape the themed environments of corporate symbols, it becomes a refuge and a way of negotiating meaning and identity. Although the countercultural or subversive potential of such forms of expressions should in no case be overrated, they present an alternative to dominant systems of negotiating meaning. Unlike the themed environment of the “punk rock coffee shop,” which is still permeated by commercial interest, corporate surveillance and the semiotic meaning supplied by the culture-producing industries, cultural forms of mockery and bricolage can be said to create a realm relatively autonomous from this kind of influence.
Nina Franz is currently studying cultural studies at Humboldt University in Berlin.
Posted on August 22, 2006 11:52 AM