Where Are We Now festival: What is counterculture?

Provocative collective Neu! Reekie! present Where Are We Now?, a festival of politically minded performance, at Hull UK City of Culture 2017. In this era of global turbulence, The Skinny asks organiser Kevin Williamson: Where is the counterculture now?

Feature by Alan Bett | 07 Mar 2017

From his infamous and invaluable 90s publishing company Rebel Inc. – with its slogan ‘fuck the mainstream!’ – to his current position as one half of Scotland's favourite avant-garde noisemakers Neu! Reekie!, Kevin Williamson has counterculture pedigree. Here is a man who was among the first to publish Irvine Welsh, reminded the world of cult writers such as Knut Hamsun and Jim Dodge, and now provides a page and a stage for bold and dissenting voices to interact with audiences and communities across the country.

With co-conspirator Michael Pedersen, in June he brings a gathering of Neu! Reekie! affiliates to Hull, including rappers and poets, filmmakers, visual artists and musicians – all asking the question: Where Are We Now? 

The Skinny: In all your incarnations, from Rebel Inc. to Neu! Reekie!, what specifically have you been opposing in the mainstream?

Kevin Williamson: I don’t think counterculture starts from an opposition to anything else within culture necessarily. There’s a broader context and the context for Rebel Inc. was very specific. It was the 1990s. And the context for Neu! Reekie! is now. These are very different and this is what really interests me. The 90s will be looked back on as a time of relative social stability in the west, compared to now. There was more hedonism, more drugs, more emphasis on the individual, and art and culture reflected that to a degree… At Rebel Inc., more than anything else we were reacting against the idea of working class people being marginalised and their voices not being heard. We put an emphasis on the legitimacy of our language and our tongues, and that was a big battle of the 90s. That’s not the same as now, this is a very different context we’re operating in.

Does this feed into the idea that specific countercultures have life cycles?

There are definite cycles. You look at the art I’m talking about in the 90s; music, visual art, even types of poetry. It was quite personal, quite laconic. A very different type of poetry from what was produced in the 60s and 70s, because they had their own context as well, or the poetry in the 30s, which is a very different context – maybe with more parallels to the period we’re coming into now… We’re looking at a period now, post-Brexit, post-Trump, where the global context has changed. We’re hearing people talk about nuclear war and war with China in an open way at the tops of government. So, I think we’re moving into a time of great anxiety. The optimism of the 60s and the hedonism of the 90s are going to seem quite alien to a lot of people now.

Is it naïve and simplistic to suggest that art reacts strongly to such pressures?

I think that art responds to its time and its context. The idea of the artist disconnected from society is a total fallacy. I’m with Pablo Neruda who said that the life of a poet must be reflected in their poetry. That’s a law of art, that’s a law of life. I’m watching poetry and how it’s changing. I’m looking at the new stars of poetry and how they communicate with their base of followers, and it’s very oral, it’s using technology… Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish, Salena Godden and Luke Wright, these are the pioneers, the ones who are breaking down the barriers. Some of them are getting millions of views on YouTube, they started out almost as YouTube poets but are now getting contracts with Faber and Bloodaxe and so on, because they have something to say.

But do you see this acceptance and absorption into the mainstream as a positive or a concern?

This is an age-old concern. As an old Clash fan, that line, ‘turning rebellion into money’, it goes back 40 years. Part of the modus operandum of being in a counterculture is being aware that corporations will try to take your work and neuter it by turning it into advertising. Taking it mainstream and repackaging it back to the public. You have to be aware of that all the time.

Your programme for Where Are We Now? has a strong focus on poetry and hip-hop. Is this due to their history of protest?

I don’t think hip-hop is separate to poetry. We [at Neu! Reekie!] present poetry and music, and nothing presents poetry and music better than hip-hop as far as I’m concerned. It’s the perfect marriage. Hip-hop artists can be the most socially aware and tuned into what’s happening on the streets. We’re working with a lot of local artists in Hull, working in the community as part of the bigger project. These are people who can relate to working class and marginalised communities. This is important, it’s not all about the stage, the audience and entertainment.

Finally, in our current political situation, do artists of the counterculture have a responsibility to react?

Artists are the only people who can make a difference. Politicians can’t. All they can do is make institutional changes that artists can operate in. And by artists, I mean everyone. It’s a non-exclusionary term. The idea that someone is not an artist is alien. I’ve worked in prisons, I’ve seen that every single person can express themselves in a cultural and creative way... I don’t see any other way of changing society except through art because that’s what makes life worth living outside your personal domain. Art and culture is primary in a society. Take that away and you’d have nothing left but survival.

Where Are We Now?, 2-4 Jun, various venues, Hull http://hull2017.co.uk/wawn