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The South London Activist Choir (Slackers)

One Slacker’s account of Singing, Pedagogy and Sustainable Activism 

Part 1

 “We are slackers. We don’t have a conductor, a lead singer, a boss, a manager, a producer, a press officer, or an artistic director. We are each all of these roles and are constantly learning new roles.” 

Slackers, the South London Activist Choir was born out of a trip into the west end in December 2006, following a call out by one of our number to sing anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist Christmas carols in various large departmental stores with useful and interesting crisscrossing escalators as slides to play on.  We had such fun we decided to meet up in the New Year and see what other activism could be done with singing.[1] 

We met fortnightly, sometimes even weekly throughout spring 2007. Our next public appearance was at the Anti-War demo on February 24th which had an anti-trident theme as the replacement of Trident was then being debated in Parliament.  We sang ‘We can’t live in a Trident Submarine’ and everyone who heard it smiled and some joined in.  

We then did a gig as the Fat Cat choir in a saloon / wild west night at the Ivy House in Peckham in March; we were hilarious, cribbing off song sheets, getting the words wrong, showing the audience the wrong words to sing along with, dressed as corporate Nasties fat on the blood and sweat of their workers. We sang a version of ‘Don’t fence me in’ (Oh, give me land, lots of land, lots of cash and lots of power / Don’t fence me in / Don’t you say I can’t pay workers 20 cents an hour / Don’t fence me in / I think it’s cute to pollute, and so if your nation / bans my toxic product without compensation / I can turn and sue you for expropriation / Don’t fence me in[2]). We sang “we’re gonna keep on singing badly” because that somehow liberated us from the pressure of being any good, it got more of a response, and was much more fun than all that damned effort trying to be good.

There was another foray into corporate London when Starbucks thought it would be good PR to invite choirs into its stores as part of the Sing London festival. Well, we couldn’t resist and with a “Starbucks’ domination of the world failed / Because their coffee tastes of shit / And exploitation / Putting small cafes out of business / Stopping workers unionise” to the tune of Moondog’s Nero’s expedition and a “Whenever you drink coffee in Starbucks, remember, just remember / Whenever you drink coffee in Starbucks, remember, just remember / Starbucks, McDonalds exploitation innit / Starbucks, McDonalds same old shit, innit” (to the tune of Goethe’s quote-song “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it, just begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it”), we were rewarded with a Starbucks apron from an employee.  Customers supping their brown swill weren’t so amused however, refusing eye contact and pretending to be deaf.

All the while, we were meeting in each other’s houses to practice, work out tunes, eat food together (We are Snackers too), and to gradually get to know each other better. There was a suggestion to do a workshop-performance at the South London Gallery’s Weasel event and we decided to go for it.  I felt that this was moving in a slightly different direction for a collective practice just starting to gather momentum, and felt positive and empowered about this. This was thanks to a very peaceful and wrinkleless experience of working together which, on retrospect, had cohered due to people actually turning up when they said they were going to.  But still, the decision to perform cast a slim shadow of risk that we couldn’t afford to linger in for too long. Would the gig go down well?[3] Was it really where we want to be putting our energies? What if there were only 4 of us on the night, because people had gradually dropped out … the energy not being quite right and no one being able to put their finger on exactly what the problem was? Would we have the attitude and energy to create an experience which sucked its sustenance from the milk of attitude and energy rather than training, talent, and skill[4]. We’d had no experience of working together in this particular configuration, we just had the shared experience of turning up for a sing together in our free time, because we believe that singing in public places is a means of tackling something or other in capitalism we had yet to define. 

The first meeting to plan the workshop was hectic and full on.  All of us had ideas and assumptions about what to do and the way it should be done.  Some Slackers had professional experience in leading workshops. Keen to resist the ‘common sense’ idea that such people should therefore become leaders in devising the workshop; I was reminded of a comment in David Graeber’s ethnography of Direct Action, 

“In DAN[5], accusations of high-handed authoritarian behaviour tended to most frequently occur when activists got involved in work too similar to roles they were used to doing in the corporate world. If one has a great deal of experience in say, public relations techniques, or video editing, contributing one’s knowledge to the movement does seem like the obvious thing to do.  But often proves extremely difficult for those used to using those skills in the corporate world to fully break from the habit of treating those with less experience as subordinates, especially at first.  Some actually avoid getting involved in work too similar to what they do in the formal sector for just that reason.” [6] 

But there must be a way of utilising skills acquired in corporate or ‘formal’ organisations in anti-capitalist projects in which we don’t merely reproduce the social and emotional behaviours of; fossilised leadership, fossilised acceptance of leadership, the non questioning of orders, the following of orders, extreme anxiety that the project (product / service) isn’t good enough, the tendency to controlling behaviours (“If I don’t do it, it just won’t get done”), lack of motivation due to feelings of disempowerment, and manipulative behaviour to cover this lack of motivation from bosses. 

I have a kind of sixth sense that trusts in the collective process of self-regulating, leaderless groups that everything necessary to perform a particular action will be thought of, mentioned, set in motion, chased up, and taken care of, and that the group doesn’t depend on any one person to do so.  This process does away with having to always have an opinion in order to participate, creating space for other forms of participation, such as listening, witnessing, observation and reflection. A group going through the various stages of making a decision will come up with a more multi-faceted, multi-coloured, sophisticated plan than one person going through the same stages on his/her own.  Even if some aspects of the resulting action don’t seem necessary to me, that’s probably because I can’t see what other people can see when they argue for them.  I might even stand aside – a crucial strategy for achieving consensus –  from the decision to pursue a particular course of action that I don’t want to do but have no objection to other people doing. As Slackers, we are aiming for a process in which aims are collaboratively stated and then each collaborator throws in what skills they can offer to achieve the aim.  Alternatively, one person might have an idea for a project that she doesn’t have the skills to achieve alone. If the suggestion is agreed as a common point of interest, people with relevant skills in the group are there to ‘patch up the holes’ in ability and experience. This creates the interesting possibility for people to lead from ‘behind’ as it were, in terms of skills and experience.  (All you need is love.)  Most interesting of all is when the aim is quite open, as it was on this occasion, and we were all free to let our creativity go for a wander before deciding on a course of action.

This process can be seen as a form of libertarian pedagogy, which for these purposes I’m going to describe as a situation in which the aim of the teacher is to become unnecessary to the learning success of the student, because the student has learnt how to learn.  In the case of the Slackers, we unravel dependence on a single person in order to learn new things.  Similarly, knowledge of the subject is largely irrelevant for a libertarian ‘teacher’ (and this shift in approach makes the very word a paradox).  This point is made in Jacques Rancière’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation which describes the story of Joseph Jacotot, a French philosopher of education, who claimed in 1818 that neither knowledge nor explanation were necessary for learning. Knowing no Flemish, Jacotot found himself able to teach French to Flemish students who knew no French. He devised methods that would allow, for instance, illiterate parents to teach their children how to read (and potentially themselves in the process). It describes the liberation that results when that most subtle of hierarchies, intelligence, is overturned. The aim of the teacher therefore within the framework of libertarian pedagogy is to become dispensable to the learner. The conditions for this however, have to be right. Before I gave up teaching full time, learner autonomy was the buzz word. I was very excited by this opportunity to exercise what I saw as an anarchic principle within an institution. Yet the reality was of an overbearing structure that pushed for results and sat bum down on the face of learner/mentor initiatives craving time and space to learn in freedom. The institution farted in my face too many times and I gave up trying to bring about change from within. If there is a hierarchy in an organisation predetermining the outcome of a particular activity, freedom to experiment and time to develop is curtailed. Stress levels are increased and stress is never conducive to learning. So while no one person, not even a teacher in a learning situation, is indispensable when working collectively and in consensus, environmental conditions have to be friendly to the aims of a group trying to work this way.  Otherwise, the fire-and-hire world of cut-throat, competitive corporations turns this liberating concept into a ‘no-one is indispensable’ mantra which is whispered down a main tanoy system into the open plan office, sending shivers down the spines of executives, who can only try to gain comfort from a 6th cup of brown swill from Starbucks. 

In trying to work without hierarchy and a fixed leadership, we also need to be wary of what Jo Freeman called ‘The tyranny of structurelessness’ (1970) in which despite best intentions, some sort of leadership inevitably emerges (due to different skills and experience). I think the idea of temporary leaders is a useful one here.  Jumping forward a couple to months to September, on the initiative of one Slacker, we prepared a rewrite of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ for the biennial death fest called Defence Systems Equipment International (DSEI), (arms dealers paradise in the Docklands, subsidised by the taxpayer[7], protected by the police to the tune of £4m.  

‘This is an invitation to every nation Please come to DSEi[8] where the weapons aren’t too pricey. Ain’t misbehavin’, I’m savin’ my arms for you.’ 

This slacker assumed temporary leadership, not of the whole action, but of getting people on board with this song, and the practice of it (teaching us the tune, showing how the words scanned).  On another occasion, I generated interest in doing a voice workshop with artist-activist Maggie Nicols. I did the work of setting up contact with Maggie and finding a date good for all, but, nearer the time of the workshop, asked for help with other tasks, such as handling donations on the day.  If one person does all the work, there is a risk of alienating some people in a group who might not feel consulted or involved or even aware of what’s going on; all of which are big demotivators and fodder for backstabbing or gossiping within groups.  It can be difficult assuming leadership for a task within a group that is trying to do away with leadership, but an acceptance of temporary, rotating leading roles is one way of unmasking power and utilising the skills and energy of people within the group.[9] 

The second meeting for the SLG workshop was great.  We pushed on with devising a running order of songs and activities, and ended up making placards (which had already been started by a placard-making working group), basically huge song sheets for workshop participants to sing along with. It was good working together, the group dynamic was gathering momentum, enabling trust that everything would be said and done by the collective whole. And lots was said and done, not everything we needed for the final workshop because nothing gets done all at once, and more was said and done than I could ever have achieved on my own or with just one or two others. 

And then it was the night itself. We’d arranged to meet an hour before the doors opened to run through and warm up. We’d actually left quite a few little details to be finalised at the last minute and tensions were quite high again. This was made worse by the fact that we hadn’t formalised a decision making process. We’d left this quite informal, and had never designated a facilitator for any of our meetings.  There were only 8 of us, it had seemed a bit bureaucratic to insist on this formality. Yet it would definitely have enabled us to make quicker decisions under the pressure of time before our workshop, with one person, a temporary leader, collecting proposals and pushing for agreement on them, rejecting irrelevant or repetitive comments.

 

     This was the invite on the blog

Come and sing with us on Saturday 21st July 8pm!We’ll be singing some of our songs, showing how we work together – we spend just as much time negotiating how we sing and organise as we do singing – and that’s our special charm. Come and sing along.  Your voice is just as important as ours !We are interested in organising so that we can explore some possible answers to these questions: How can we rise to the challenge of working collaboratively? How can our voices become stronger?How can we collectively make decisions so that every voice counts?       Artistic production is still very much an individual experience and since working in groups is one of the biggest challenges in our competitive and individualistic society, how can  we learn to create in a more collaborative way?  A society with many different voices will survive better than a society with only a few voices, or only a few voices that are heard and acted upon.  Voice on, voice up, voice outward, voice towards, voice together, Você  (in portuguese) meaning YOU, add in the ‘i’, and get VOICE[10]

 The workshop flowed and flew (see report by another Slacker). We were part of a night called ‘Banding together’ – a night dedicated to bands, groups, people making music together.  We were by far the largest group on the night (apart from the audience, and they came on board with us). The workshop couldn’t have gone better; as we hadn’t planned the workshop to death, there was room for beautiful things to happen. Such as, when teaching ‘Ke arona’[11] each part of the harmony (sop, alto, tenor, bass) taught their section, group by group. This meant the groups not learning their part at any one time were just chilling for the moment and chatting amongst themselves or with the slacker who was going to teach them the part.  When it came to each part of the harmony, slackers from other parts slid over to help. We had kind of planned this but it worked so smoothly and easily. We couldn’t have planned it better. Some things are best when there is an angle of improvisation.   

After the workshop we all felt such a high. We beamed and blagged more beers from the SLG bar, confident to approach any of the punters there and talk to them about how they’d found the singing.  We’d managed to reach out to people in a way that made them want to respond and join us. We changed the undercurrent of energy in that large space. Sometimes activists have little to feel satisfied with, let alone proud of. This night we did.   

*

          

Part 2

 “Groups of people always form patterns. Some groups build a sense of stability over time. Others, burning up energy around specific enthusiasms, are more transient. Occasionally, groups switch into interactive mode – working together, drawing vitality from one another. Then, in equal measure, they separate. Splitting. Re-forming. New lines of thinking. Always becoming.”[12] 

Since this workshop, slackers have had a hectic timetable of organising singing actions for the Climate Camp[13], then for the arms fair as mentioned above.  The No Borders camp followed in September and there are a 101 other struggles and actions that we want to support and be part of. Taking direct action to bring about the downfall of capitalism involves travelling around the city and country taking creative, musical action against our target. Direct Action, as David Graeber argues in his ethnography, is not symbolic. It involves confronting those responsible for capitalism and trying to stop them from carrying out their plans (Chapter 1).  I would argue that creative, musical resistance can afford a higher level of symbolism, as it is aiming to undermine the beliefs that underpin capitalism in the people who deliver it. I acknowledge inspiration from the Vacuum Cleaner, the Space Hijackers, the Rebel Clown army (CIRCA) and the fabulous training ground of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (London, October 2004). Capitalism is in our social relations as well as formal and economic institutions, and we are all responsible for it, even if to varying degrees.  A song sung to commuters on a rush hour train, encouraging them to reconsider the rat race treadmill of their lives has the potential to influence them to swerve out of their roles in carrying out capitalism. Capitalism is a mental block. We chip away at it.  

The Slackers are just starting to collectively devise an effective action.  With our desire to attack capitalism both directly and indirectly, burnout is always a danger.  Burnout is defined as long term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding, and is caused by “a combination of very high expectations and chronic situational stresses”[14].  Bringing about the downfall of capitalism could be considered one such ‘very high expectation’.  A tactic of temporary non-action or withdrawal and quiet observation may be equally important to the achievement of long term aims. There is a tension between the urge to action (“If not you, then who? If not now, then when?”[15]) which stems from the ‘I count’ attitude which motivates every anarchist-activist and which we hold dear to our hearts. However, a constant “We must do something NOW!” can impede the flow of creativity that helps to build dynamic, sustainable groups. Slackers is an attempt to prevent this kind of burnout and create a sustainable form of activism through the creative energy that emerges from our singing sessions, and from the way that we interact with the world. The workshop at SLG was part of this process; learning the new communication skills of working in this group without hierarchy, as well as musical skills … improving our musicality, lyric writing, harmonising, even sight reading and instrument playing, are one way of nurturing our activist selves within a warm bundle of creativity.  Sustainable activism will accompany an individual on his or her life journey, adding new skills so we are not still doing the same old protest years down the line, and unable to adequately respond to a changing capitalism.  Cathy Levine wrote in her response to the Freeman article on structurelessness, “A feminist friend once commented that, ‘being in the women’s movement’ meant spending approximately 25% of her time engaging in group activities and 75% of her time developing herself …(but) we tend to plunge ourselves head-first into organisational activities, neglecting personal development, until one day we find we do not know what we are doing and for whose benefit, and we hate ourselves as much as before the movement.” [16] This is sacrifice-capitalism contaminating not only social relationships (it’s almost impossible to work with someone suffering from burnout) but also my relationship with me.  As an antidote to burnout, it seems pertinent to remember the anarchist principle of free association – anyone who wants to can be a Slacker – and participation is entirely voluntary.  Our acronym is a constant reminder not to take ourselves too seriously.  The drop in, drop out nature of our meetings may take a while to get used to; involvement fluctuates considerably from person to person and each person’s involvement may vary depending on the project. It might be a case of adapting to this fluidity, rather than getting frustrated when a project collapses for lack of people prioritising it. If we are sensitive to our different energies, one project might collapse but another, completely unexpected, might spring into being. 

Since the Carnival against Capitalism in the City of London, June 18th 1999, or perhaps since the piece of writing ‘Give up Activism’[17] which criticised that event and the separation of anti-capitalist activists into exactly the kind of elitist vanguard that we are quick to criticise in other movements, there has been a slow but sure diversification of strategies of resistance. These forms, from those emerging out of the mobilisation against the G8 in Scotland (2005);  the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA),  the Trapese Collective, Activist Trauma Support and various publishing initiatives[18], to those entering our political vocabulary from beyond this island; SOMA, an experiment in anarchism[19] and No Borders initiatives, prioritise the learning of new skills, observation and acceptance of emotions, and awareness of our own borders and limitations. Most of these initiatives embody resistance to capitalism as a social relation. They recognise that while it is true that direct democracy and direct action are infectious and likely to radically transform those immediately experiencing them, so many people who (we) might want to join us are restricted from having this access or bring their own barriers that block such transformation. There is a very real need for varied and creative approaches (clowning, creating non-hierarchical, honest relationships in everyday life, emotional support) in order to bring about personal and social change.   

If we acknowledge that climate change could call into question everything that we thought we knew about the world, and demand that we revolutionise our skill set, a new and urgent attentiveness to pedagogy is necessary. No-one can know a priori how to change the world, or live in an increasingly unstable one. We can only learn in the process of doing. In the Slackers workshop-performance described above, we were guided not by a fixed idea of what we wanted to achieve, but by a commitment to working together and utilising the resources we had between us.  We weren’t acting as ‘activists’ against an enemy target, but worked together with the energy of the other people in the space, and our collective action brought about a shift in energy and attitude. Using the word ‘activist’ can implement a kind of hierarchy that can be used to distance us from people we want to be closest to. A welcome blurring of boundaries between ‘activists’ and ‘non-activists’ will come about by listening more and to voices we’ve never heard before. After all, oppression and resistance are happening everywhere around us, not just in the places where we think they occur.  “A rethinking of the way in which those of us who perceive ourselves as belonging to this movement relate to those perceived as ‘outside’”[20] may involve being ideologically active in a variety of everyday spaces; the streets we walk down, the places we hang out in at the weekend, sites of work and consumerism.  To paraphrase Alice Walker, Activism could be as everyday as the rent we pay, which doesn’t mean it’s routine, predictable, nor an obligation, but rather a responsibility – a way we respond to the experience of desiring to live despite capitalism. And something happens when we use our voices as an instrument of resistance – we don’t all have to sing the same song, we just need to be opening our mouths and making a noise – and as voice joins together with voice, something of the mental block of capitalism is dislodged, and the small, powerful kernel of our ability to transform is given some space to breathe..[21] And something happens when we use our voices as an instrument of resistance – we don’t all have to sing the same song, we just need to be opening our mouths and making a noise that resonates, a sound that vibrates – and as voice joins together with voice, something of the mental block of capitalism is dislodged, and the small, powerful kernel of our ability to transform is given some space to breathe.     

Ceri Buck
openbracket(at)riseup.net
(o moon pen ( I
haven’t finished yet (

London, October 2007


[1] Singing as protest is a tactic that is as old as the hills. My intention here is to talk about our singing interventions with the kind of import that you might read in an article about the black bloc, within a context of contemporary activism, and as ‘anarchistic’ rather than anachronistic. 

[2] We didn’t write this. We got it from a website for an anti-WTO action.

[3] Freedom to fail is a freedom that simply exists. Either we embrace or we don’t.  Sometimes we don’t because of external factors; parental or other authority figure pressure. Sometimes we fail to embrace it because we’ve internalised this external pressure as fear.

[4] Some Slackers have never sang in a choir before, have had limited opportunities to make music, can’t read sheet music and don’t understand musical jargon.  Other Slackers however are talented singers and musicians. We present a wide range of skills and experience.

[5] Direct Action Network, a pan-North American network of anarchist and anti-authoritarian affinity groups, collectives, and organizations that was formed to coordinate the direct action portion of anti-WTO mobilization in Seattle in 1999.  It stopped functioning shortly after 9/11 2001 and its websites are no longer maintained.

[6] Direct Action: An Ethnography – David Graeber, unpublished. Quote from Chapter 7 Meetings

[7] Mark Thomas has calculated that each of the 60 – 65,000 jobs in the arms export business is subsidised by the taxpayer by over £13,000 As used on the famous Nelson Mandela p.144  Ebury Press 2006

[8] pronounced ‘dicey’ by protestors, so it does rhyme

[9] Freeman’s suggestions to deal with the tyranny of structurelessness include:

  • Clarifying what tasks are assigned to what individuals
  • Distributing responsibilities as widely as possible (perhaps by rotation)
  • Ensuring all have equal access to information and resources

http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/hist_texts/structurelessness.html and also as a very nice little pamphlet from Dark Star / Rebel Press entitled Untying the knot: Feminism, Anarchism and Organisation including the Freeman essay and Cathy Levine’s response “The Tyranny of Tyranny” published 1984 and  I picked up a copy from the Infoshop, 56a Crampton Street, London, SE1 

[10] https://lambethbandofsolidarity.wordpress.com/2007/07/11/slackers-workshop-performance-weasel-the-south-london-gallery/

[11] A South African song meaning ‘All power to the people / our enemies are on the run’. We picked up this song from another political choir, Raised Voices. It’s one of our faves but for the musical illiterates like me, it’s difficult to find the right note to start off on.

[12] The Cunningham Amendment, Volume Nine, Number Four. The journal of the East Pennine Anarcrisps. Subscribe by sending some stamps to 1005 Huddersfield Road, Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD12 8LP. One of my favourite anarchic reads.

[13] Combined with the art project of a burial ark to mark the death of the world as we know it, we went on a procession from the squatted campsite to BAA headquarters at Heathrow with the funereal ‘Harmondsworth, Sipson, Tuvalu, Harlington, New Orleans / Once, before the runways orchards grew / Now we’re drowning in kerosene’   August 14-21 2007  www.climatecamp.org.uk

[14] ‘Sustainable Activism & Avoiding Burnout’ leaflet produced by  Activist Trauma Support, picked up in the Well being tent at Climate Camp 2007 www.activist-trauma.net

[15] Last seen on www.tarapixie.net (October 2007) – an urgent (it really is!) call to protect a sacred landscape in the heart of Ireland from road construction.

[16] “The tyranny of tyranny” in Untying the knot p.18

[17] ‘Give up Activism’, Anonymous, in Do or Die: Voices from the Ecological Resistance, 9 (2001) http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no9/activism.htm

[18] Including Shut them down,  a valuable reflection on the mobilisation against the G8 in 2005, and Turbulence, a newspaper/journal dedicated to exploring this ‘movement of movements’ spiralling out from Seattle, published June 2007

[19] Developed over the past 35 years in Brazil, originally as psychological support for those involved in the struggle against Brazil’s military dictatorship.  Soma uses drama, sound and movement to create spontaneous group interactions and asks what skills we need to learn to resist capitalism and to create non-hierarchical relationships in our everyday lives. Contact Jorge.goia@bol.com.br for further info about Soma workshops in the UK and Europe.

[20] “Gleneagles, Activism and Ordinary Rebelliousness” by Ben Trott in Shut them down p.228 

[21] “Activism is my rent for living on this planet” – Alice Walker

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