DIY Dilemmas

October 24, 2008

I went to an inspiring talk by Ian Mackaye, of long-time punk and more recent Fugazi fame. Since the 1980s he’s quite successfully run an underground record label, played in bands, living his life by his own private ethics as an artist on the outside and in opposition to corporate, media, military culture.

I’m wasn’t there as a fan, although I understand why people would be, I attended because I thought he might be able to help me with my concern about the current ubiquitous use of the term “DIY”—one which I credit to punk, rightly or wrongly—towards any-old user-produced digital stuff: fan vids, remixes of The Hills, odes to Naruto or Apple. I asked him if the term “DIY” necessarily included a critique, a counter-cultural attitude, an anti-corporate agenda, of it it really just meant “stuff people make.” He answered that if people make stuff off the expressway of dominant, corporate culture, and they instead choose to wend their way around the small slow back roads of craft (the transportation metaphors are his), outside the rules and goals of the market, that this “was political,” whether the maker had a political position or not, whether the user celebrated corporate culture, or no.

I had to stop and look at my dogmatic position once again. These guys are challenging to me, given how they’re much more inclusive and open to the real likes and activities of regular people than I seem to be able. However, Mackaye himself spoke about finding himself, finally, as a lonely teenager (who would found the band Minor Threat at like 14) in punk because there, for the first time, he was in a room with the freaks, and outsiders, and political people, and artists who knew that they would not be satisfied or recognized or fully realized within the stuff and ways of the slick, fast, highway to nowhere (or to more vapid stuff) of dominant culture. Let’s face it, I asked the expert, he’s lived a real DIY life (although, in many ways I have, too. All my video, and academic work, really, falls outside corporate mechanisms of production and reception) and he’s ready to accept it all.

But then, I read Tomas Guiterrez Alea, for my Media Praxis class and he also speaks to me around questions DIY: “When I refer to ‘contemplative’ spectators, I mean ones who do not move beyond the passive-contemplative level; inasmuch as ‘active’ spectators, taking the moment of live contemplation as their point of departure, would be those who generate a process of critically understanding reality (including, of course, the show itself) and consequently, a practical, transforming action.”

I want to find, celebrate, and believe in the possibilities of a critical DIY culture that activates us to a process of understanding reality from whence we are then compelled to practically, actively transform. What might the less-than-critical DIY culture need to move from contemplation to activation? Why can’t more of us be like Ian Mackaye?

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