ICA Off-Site: A Journey through London Subculture

If you were living in London anytime during 1980 until today you will remember your favourite bits of the weird and wonderful subcultures bubbling beneath the mainstream.

Some achieved mainstream recognition, others were known only to a close band of acolytes. All are celebrated equally in this ‘project’, as the ICA prefers to call it.

The idea behind this project is simple. Invite those involved in the many scenes of the past to exhibit in ‘vitrines’ on the huge space of what used to be part of Selfridges hotel.

The result is about 30 vitrines full of stuff representative of this or that club, movement, fashion collective.

Some of those chosen are predictable: YBA, Frieze, Chisenhale Gallery, Leigh Bowery. Others more exotic: Kinky Gerlinky, Delirium, Big Bottom, Michael Clark and Co.

The vitrines – about 5x2x1 foot boxes raised off the floor for easy viewing of objects, tickets, flyers, notes, photos and all manner of stuff, giving you the chance to immerse in the zeitgeist and micro-culture of each scene.

The vitrines are laid out in a phycical timeline of sorts so it is also possible to put what you are seeing into a historical context and to see – to an extent – how each scene fed off or influenced the others.

The first thing that strikes you is the close melding that seems to have occurred between artists, musicians, designers, organisers, and party people.
By its very nature a subculture pushes at the traditional edges of what is acceptable or viewed as normal in fashion, sexuality, attitudes.

This is a delicious project by virtue of giving the visitor a window on so many creative energies and mini movements of the last 30 years, and with so many invited to take part there is much to see and linger over.

Perhaps most enjoyable and intriguing are the vitrines relating to club culture. Clubs that took place in snapshot in time but made their mark on culture, fashion and music. We may never get a chance to see such arrangements again (certainly not so many in one space). It represents thousands of hours of effort and attention all distilled into 30 or so boxes of stuff.

The punk ethic of this period in history is what stands out. It was a suck-it-and-see, go-for-it kind of culture that pre-dated the modern obsession with branding and super-super tidy approach to things now expected. Amateurish, yes, but judging by the faces in the innocent photobooth photos, a whole lotta fun. For some it was clearly the best time of their lives. You look at it all wondering where you were when ‘that’ was going on?

Of course what is also intriguing is who came out of all this in one piece, who used it all as a stepping stone to more and better stuff? Most of the YBAs of course, and Frieze magazine very much so. No doubt most of them lament that the world they inhabit now is a lot more serious and accusations of selling out are never far away. Subculture has the luxury of being so on trend such concerns are never uppermost, and looking at this all-in-a-box show you can see why. Oscar Wilde may have said that youth is too precious a thing to be given to the young, but he could have equally said artistic freedom is too precious a thing to be giving to the subculture.

Bouncers on the door at Selfridges Oxford Street. Must be an art project somewhere.

At the end of the show you are left wondering whether such a vibrant ‘scene’ is evident now and whether we are looking back with rose-tinted glasses at such a large stretch of time that it makes it look more concentrated and vital than it really was. The past has a habit of looking more organised and seminal than it was, but hindsight also tells us that without that we wouldn’t have what we have now – whatever that is.

No doubt in 30 years time we will be gazing into vitrines showing us how fascinating the 2010 – 2040 period was. Maybe there will be a vitrine with lots of small vitrines in it recalling how seminal this project was.

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