Selin Yagci, a PhD student on the UOC doctoral programme in Society, Technology and Culture
Until the early 2000s, punk culture was something one could encounter in public spaces on the daily in many cities across the world. Streets, parks and bars served as more or less overt settings for punks to socialize, becoming spaces of everyday resistance. The transformation of cities in recent years has affected cultural scenes in numerous ways. The punk scene, for example, has gradually transformed the way it expresses itself in the public sphere, at the cost of its visibility in many places.
In order to find traces of a punk past in cities, one must find a way to look back in time. This is the focus of the research being carried out by Selin Yagci, a PhD student at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), under the supervision of Natàlia Cantó, on the doctoral programme in Society, Technology and Culture. Yagci is also a member of two research groups in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities: Cultural and Social Opening and Closing Processes (PROTCIS) and Global Literary Studies Research Group (GlobaLS), the latter of which is also linked to the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3). One of the researcher's goals is to discover and understand the punk scene's present and past in Turkish and Spanish cities such as Ankara, Istanbul, Madrid and Barcelona.
How important has 'place' been in defining punk culture?
Since it first emerged, punk has always been more than just a form of artistic or musical expression, as subcultural materials began to circulate among people in different towns and cities. By studying how people remember the recent past in cities like Madrid and Ankara, I've found that places related to punk culture initially played a role in cultural production and consumption, and later spread to the streets and became part of everyday life. Socializing practices gave rise to new places beyond musical activity and concerts, expanding and at the same time blurring the boundaries of the punk scene.
How does punk culture use public and private space?
If there is a visible punk scene, people engage with it in their daily lives, every day, so public space plays a very specific role. Here it's key to define public space as regards cultural scenes: it can be any space that allows for public encounters with other people (strangers). The visibility of its social practices not only makes the punk scene accessible to more people and new generations, but also creates familiarity with other groups that are not necessarily participating in it.
We often associate the punk movement with alternative and unusual places. Has the punk scene been shaped in some way by its members' choice of places?
Reconditioned places, street corners and park benches suddenly filled with punks, houses that look like bars and bars that look like houses… The punk scene has been deconstructive in its use of places, and this is very political. The reasons for this creativity vary and are rooted in the political, social and economic aspects of different cities. Some squats and social centres clearly show how alternative venues are set up away from commodification and capitalist domination to host concerts, performances and talks or simply to gather.
Meanwhile, everyday places such as squares, street corners, parks or even shopping centres have also been used to consume cheap drinks outdoors or to enjoy indoor facilities for free. This everyday use of spaces, which appears to be random in most cases, shaped certain locations in many cities.
What kind of places are we talking about, focusing on Spain's big cities?
When we retrace the places that defined the punk scene in cities like Madrid and Barcelona, for example, we see that squares, parks and street markets brought together people who would gather there to meet others with the same interests and to enjoy concerts, bars and festivals. I've spoken to people who used these spaces on a daily basis, and ate and slept outdoors, with little use or need for indoor spaces. The Plaza del Dos de Mayo square in Madrid is one of the places that many people cite as a focal point for the punk scene, mentioning the every-dayness of it.
And in Turkish cities?
In Turkey's major cities, such as Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir, punks used parks and street corners to hang out in much the same way. Political pressure and the difficulty of occupying empty buildings led punks to use spaces in alternative ways. In Ankara, for example, the courtyard of a residential building could easily become the meeting spot for a group of punks who would spend a few hours or even days there. It was also common to use other venues whose image and social circle appeared to have nothing to do with punk culture, such as bars where folk musicians usually played, cinemas or wedding halls, to host low-cost punk concerts.
The use of space changes from city to city, but what do these places have in common? What is it that most defines the punk scene?
It's hard to find a common denominator for all the places where punk practices unfold in an everyday sense, as each town or city has its own dynamics shaped by its social, political and economic environment. However, in many of the interviews I've done, I've observed that people remember the freedom of going out on the street without choosing a place or time with a certain friend and knowing that there would always be people in some of these 'punk places'.
Are they unseen and difficult-to-find places or are they an integrated part of the everyday life of society in these cities?
There are different ways of analysing what we might call 'punk places'. We can retrace some of the visible movements of the punk scene throughout its recent history, even when it's regarded as an underground scene. One implication of the word 'underground' here, apart from its connotation of being alternative, is that it may not be very conspicuous. It may refer to a space that is less visible in its literal sense of use, either because of the location (which is not easy for outsiders to find) or the time (often at night or even in the early morning) of the scene-related event.
The movements and dynamics between visible and less visible places have been up against constant change and, therefore, linked to political developments and urban strategies. How much of the scene takes place in broad daylight and how much takes place at night or out of sight depends on everyday tactics and choices. However, it's important to remember that the punk movement has not been limited to bars and nightlife. Soon after it emerged as a cultural concept, it found a response in the street and coexisted with street culture in many parts of the world.
What options for systemic change, resilience or resistance did (and do) these places offer?
The places that were created in and around the punk scene were shaped by everyday habits. In terms of money, for example, socializing in the street allows for a minimal use of resources in comparison to going to a restaurant or a cultural event that has an entrance fee and rules. Regulation and control over these places made it tougher for punks to keep using them in their daily lives. Meeting spots adapted to changing urban strategies, and in localities where there was no means to adapt due to economic, political and social conditions, the punk scene disappeared or became less visible.
When a city and its image change, so does its use. In numerous interviews, Madrid was given as an example of a city that seeks to portray itself as a safe capital from an outside perspective. Among the numerous outcomes of this are less everyday encounters, which has had many consequences for cultural scenes. For the punk scene, meeting up and grabbing cheap drinks may have a deeper meaning than one may think. Regulations and policies that make it difficult for the scene to remain visible through socialization may affect how future generations think of and imagine space.
The cultural scene of the past gives us a better understanding of today's cities. What mark has the punk scene left?
Today's punk scene does not seem to be as visible and therefore as active as it used to be in many cities, and you don't have to go far to prove the validity of this argument. The 2000s are remembered as an example of 'good times' by lots of people related to the punk scene. Many of those I interviewed, coming from different backgrounds and generations, shared their unease when referring to the pace of transformation that is wiping out most traces of punk places, which are closing down temporarily or not serving the same purpose. The habits and practices associated with those places are disappearing along with them.
It's hard to discern what was once there with just a quick glance. Discovering some of their traces and imprints is only possible by talking to the witnesses who were there, to see if there is anything left of those times that are still alive in everyday practices. When discussing how to discover urban pasts in her book The Future of Nostalgia (2001), Svetlana Boym writes: "The past of the city therefore is not entirely legible; it is irreducible to any anachronistic language; it suggests other dimensions of the lived experience and haunts the city like a ghost." Any attempt to uncover this past is valuable in recognizing these dimensions, which are both personal and collective.