Russell Smith: Culturegood and the soft city: Bringing culture back to Canada

Russell Smith: Culturegood and the soft city: Bringing culture back to Canada

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Russell Smith (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Russell Smith (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

“Ein Kulturgut” is one of those great German words that needs a single-word equivalent in English. A cultural asset: a thing in culture to be valued. Techno Ist Jetzt Offiziell Ein Kulturgut, said a headline in the Swiss newspaper the Limmattaler Zeitung at the beginning of July. Techno music is now officially a culturegood – at least in the city of Zurich, according to UNESCO, the organization that declares sites of historical heritage around the world.

Zurich is Switzerland’s biggest city and is not the most famous city in the world for minimalist electronic dance music (that would be Berlin), but the city included techno in the list of cultural-protection zones it submitted to the United Nations agency this year. Zurich has declared that techno – along with its gardens and its housing co-operatives – are “intangible heritage sites.” It’s not just the style of music that it refers to, nor the physical dance clubs, but the culture around them, the street parades and the warehouse parties and, presumably, the teeth grinding.

The Limmattaler quotes a cultural-studies professor called Walter Leimgruber who explains the decision to protect this creative milieu: “The development of techno culture in Zurich, with the Street Parade and a very distinctive club scene, lends Zurich a young, open, hedonistic, and international reputation.” He also said, “There was a deliberate focus on the urban, because of the clichéd notion that traditions are found in rural areas.”

The legal implications of this decision are not clear, but I can imagine it will likely mean that techno clubs will be saved from high taxes and from closure by rapacious landlords. Street parades can never again be banned.

Such things have already happened in Germany: Last year, the famously dark and exclusive techno mecca Berghain, a club in a former power plant, was designated a venue for “high culture” as opposed to entertainment, and subject to a lower tax rate as a result.

Other Swiss heritage “sites” are things such as the old city of Bern, a Benedictine convent and the practice of watchmaking. Paradoxically, canonizing techno immediately historicizes it, turns it into the past, like watchmaking. That’s a funny thing for a movement that was always futurist.

The other amusing – some might say troubling – thing is the now-permanent association of German-speaking countries and this hard-edged and hard-living aesthetic. It’s a kind of joke: black-clad Germans and the extreme seriousness of repetitive industrial noise. Techno is the whitest music on earth; Switzerland itself is possibly the globe’s culturally whitest country.

But as with so much popular music, the genre’s origins among African-Americans in the suburbs of Detroit tends to go unreported and uncelebrated in all this celebration.

For that’s where it started, in the late 1980s: black U.S. DJs and producers in that largely abandoned city, taking the regular beats of disco music and the lulling monotony of Chicago house music, speeding it up, adding the futuristic machine sounds that were inspired by science-fiction movies and novels, and creating a uniquely aggressive sound for their own unique underground.

The Detroit sound inspired electronic musicians in Europe, who sped it up even further, removed most of the funky elements and turned it into the soundtrack of the large, illegal dance party that we heard about in alarmed media reports. Most Americans first heard of techno through these exposés about European raves, which was rather sad. Some of the Detroit originators of the sound are bitter about this inaccuracy – you might even call it an appropriation – to this day. The story of techno’s sudden appeal to a white audience echoes the marketing of rock and roll in the late 1950s: It only became massively popular when it was white.

Interestingly, the Swiss scholars are claiming that techno in their country has a role in encouraging immigration, since outsiders tend to be welcome in its leftist, hippy, anything-goes ethos. The city’s techno sites have “an integrative meaning,” Leimgruber said. It may not make up for the snub to Detroit, but this kind of thinking at least is, I think, a culturegood.

We are very behind on this kind of imaginative approach to urban regulation in Canada. In Toronto, a large and airy downtown building (at 401 Richmond Street) is a cultural centre, home to art galleries, studios, bookstores and video production, a social and touristic driver in the neighbourhood – unquestionably a culturegood – and it will likely close and be sold as condos owing to property-tax hikes. The property’s value is determined solely in crude financial terms, but its social and aesthetic value are surely higher.

The point is not that the building is valuable, but that the people it houses – what Jonathan Raban famously called the “soft city” – are. We don’t have any mechanism to call it an exception, to call it a site of “intangible” value whose taxes may be reduced. Nor do we have politicians brave or ambitious enough to create those mechanisms and those designations. We don’t ask academics for their opinion on the intangibles either.

These capitulations to the material are happening all over the country. Let’s declare the soft city a culturegood, the way the watchmaking, heavily regulated, surprisingly wildly hedonistic raving Swiss do.


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