Elise Imray Papineau
For this assignment, I chose to carry out my observations at a club in downtown Ottawa, which doubles up as a concert venue on particular days. At least once a week, this club features bands that can be categorized as indie-rock, folk rock, alternative rock, electronic, punk, metal or hardcore, and most of which are local. As a crossover member of the punk-alternative-metal scene in Ottawa, I am very familiar with this site. For the purpose of this assignment, I wanted to pick a venue to which I could comfortably gain access. Despite my acquaintance with the location, I did not feel that my prior experiences would skew my observations, because concerts are sites for unpredictable behavior that are contingent on context, atmosphere and participation.
Another reason why I picked this venue is my academic interest in the power dynamics within music-based subcultures. These subcultures are often dismissed as unworthy of academic merit but I strongly believe that is it profitable to investigate them as subjects of contemporary anthropology. The concert venue is an important site for ethnographic fieldwork, as it is known that knowledge is produced in all sorts of places, both familiar and unfamiliar.
It’s always satisfying to walk right past a lineup of twenty-something year olds – who still hold out hope that they can procure tickets for tonight’s sold-out show – when you’ve responsibly purchased yours days in advance. You present your cardstock ticket stub to the bouncer and offer your bare wrist to the always-smiling tattooed woman for a black stamp before proceeding through the second set of doors to the rumbling belly of the night club.
You can’t remember the last time you’ve seen the place so crowded: the bar area is swarmed with young adults clad in distressed leather jackets, ripped denim jeans and discoloured converse high tops. The floor is slightly sticky from spilled cocktails and beers. You head over to the crowded area by the bar and feel yourself disappearing into a herd of music enthusiastic and their look-alikes. As you wait for the bar staff to notice you there, propped up on the black waxy countertop, you notice your feet casually tapping along to the beat of the opening’s band rhythmic drum lines. The treble is too high and the singer’s voice, although powerful, is muffled as a result of mediocre audio equipment. The couple beside you struggle to have a conversation. Their faces are painted with expressions of simultaneous frustration and confusion as they continuously repeat themselves, holding one hand cupped around the ear, in a desperate effort to increase auditory range. You scan the area and find yourself recognizing many familiar faces from the city’s modest underground scene. A sudden loud echo of enthusiastic clapping and uninhibited shouting resonates from the front of the crowd all the way through to the back of the bar area. The opening band express their gratitude one last time, gesturing to the pack of young adults bouncing around closest to the stage. As the technicians start setting up for the main act, a stream of audience members hurriedly travel to the exit, flattened cigarette pack in one hand and dollar-store lighter in the other.
You pace casually around the club, which now appears practically desolate without the surprising number of smokers who are surely chilled standing outside in the brisk November air, in nothing but their graphic band tees. You exchange friendly glances and subtle nods with other members of the scene that you’ve encountered at similar shows before. This is the opportune moment to claim a prime spot near the stage for the upcoming band. Forgoing the smoke break is a tactical move at such concerts. As the crowd trickles back from outside, reeking strongly of cigarette smoke and blowing into their cold hands, the lights dim once again and the club’s resident DJ fades out the tunes overheard. The space around you becomes increasingly cramped as a group of hollering overzealous teenagers rush through the crowd towards the front of the stage. Arms fling into the air with fervor as the headlining band appears before the audience. You can barely make out your own voice in the clamor of excited shouting and shrill whistling. Just as the guitarist begins strumming the first chords, confetti bursts from the ceiling above and falls onto the shoulders, and into the drinks, of eager fans. Before the song even reaches its chorus, a restless mosh pit has broken out in the center of the crowd. You can’t help but get drawn in as young men on either side of you collide into each other, laughing and spraying beer on those in their vicinity. The smell of smoke is soon replaced by the stench of body odor. A slew of bare-chested men in their late teens and early twenties come barreling into the crowd, thrusting you into the heart of the pit. Your hair becomes tousled and greasy, your limbs are hot and sweaty, your face is warm and you can’t keep from smiling. As the band members onstage suddenly ambush the audience with fluorescent silly string from an aerosol can, you feel like the night club has transformed into a wild house party. An overhead stage diver abruptly slips through the hands of the crowd and their thick leather boot scarcely misses hitting you square in the face. And so it goes. Hollers of protest echo as the band announces they only have a couple songs left in their set. The fans’ disapproval is short-lived, and they immediately resume their fanatical dancing as the music picks back up for a last hurrah.
As you step back outside in the darkness of the night, you realize you took no pictures from the evening. But the beer stains on your shirt and the confetti in your hair serve as pretty damn good reminder.
Anyone who self-identifies as a member of the punk scene in Ottawa has surely become well acquainted with the limited number of concert venues that the city has to offer. Despite the sparsity of locales, the punk scene continues to thrive in the nation’s capital. The subculture has adapted since the reign of archetypal punk bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. In Ottawa particularly, the scene could be more akin to that of a crossover subculture, which incorporates some of the essential musical and aesthetic components of punk with those of more mainstreamed genres. Punk concerts have thus become less exclusionary and the concert venues themselves are rendered more accessible to a larger audience.
The music and the aesthetics of a given subculture are two components that, despite their complexity, are more evident to pick up on. Less obvious would be take a look at the organization of physical spaces. In which way does the organization of a concert venue impact the social relations and behavior of the participating members of a subculture? It might seem backwards to address the spaces instead of the people within them, but it is useful to understand the structure of an area before attempting to demystify its inner workings.
During my latest punk concert experience in Ottawa, I noticed something particular about the venue. Although I am a regular partisan of this locale, I had never recognized the way in which the actual space was divided. Furthest away from the entrance is the stage, where a local party-punk band had been playing. Directly facing the stage, of course, is the crowd. Now, contrary to most concert venues, the crowd here only takes up about one third of the locale’s space, begging the question: what is happening in the other two thirds of the space? I’ll point out that this specific show had been sold out at least a day or two prior, which is uncommon for a lineup of local bands. A couple hundred fans, give or take, spanning all ages, took over the nightclub that evening. Approximately half of them constituted the actual crowd: they were raucous and excitable, and many partook in the typical practices of mosh-pitting, stage diving and crowd surfing. The other half, however, occupied two additional spaces within the venue, which I have categorized as the bar area and the dead zone. The majority of those who weren’t in the crowd could be found in what I call the bar area. This space is a perfect in-between for those who aren’t keen about being shoved around in a sweaty crowd but still want to partake in the event. The entire bar area is raised approximately 3 or 4 feet from the ground, which means, on one hand, that it’s a great spot from which to watch the show, and on the other hand, that it’s the ideal place to be if you wish to be seen. It’s also the most profitable site for socializing: it allows members of the subculture to recognize one another and stop to converse while they wait for drinks. I seldom saw anyone alone in the bar area, except if they were ordering drinks and taking them back with them either to the crowd or to the dead zone, which I will talk about next. The name is certainly more ominous than the matter. By dead zone, I am referring to the area closest to the club’s exit, which is furthest from the crowd and situated past the bar. It is, at first glance, the least lively space in the venue. In fact, after multiple glances, the dead zone still appears far less dynamic than the other two areas. It comprises many tables and chairs where people can sit, contrary to the other two areas where everyone is standing. The dead zone can be an in-between zone for individuals who are simply waiting for their friends who are smoking outside or quickly went to use the bathroom. It’s also the site where coat check takes place, which usually results in long lineups before the show and even longer ones immediately afterwards. A few tables are set up selling CDs and t-shirts for the bands in this area as well, which is meant to catch the attention of fans before they head out. The dead zone is the least populated space as it is the furthest from the action and although it allows for conversation, it doesn’t carry out the same social purpose as the bar area does. That being said, further observation is needed in order to solidify the function of each space and better understand not only how they exist in relation to each other, but also how individuals behave within each of them.
During the process of carrying out this assignment, I was confronted with the realization that ethnography really is a complex textual practice. Writing ethnography is about striking a balance between the finesse of language and the substantiality of knowledge. In producing my two ethnographic texts, I found that the experience called for a lot of patience, in revising and correcting myself, and required a thorough thought process, in managing which details to include and which to leave out. I have learned that collecting data is only half the battle when it comes to creating ethnographic material. Many judgment calls were necessary to determine not only which observations where most relevant to the text, but also to decide which tone I should engage, which style I should use to shape to text and which voice I should adopt. I found it incredibly difficult to limit my ethnographic texts to one page each. Although my observations only spanned about 3 hours, I collected numerous pages of data and spent many days mulling over their significance thereafter. My biggest obstacle in the context of this assignment was narrowing the ideas, cutting out the redundant material and restricting the length of each text.
Throughout the course of the semester, we have encountered a multitude of ethnographies that incorporate different formats, tones, styles and voices. I used Raffles’ work The Deepest of Reveries as inspiration for my first text, which I would consider to be more of a sensory ethnography. I wanted for this text to depict, in a poetic fashion rather than in an explanatory manner, the events that unfolded during my observations. Similarly to Raffles’ text, I tried to convey a certain eloquence and vividness in my piece. The ultimate goal of this ethnography is to appeal to the senses and give a real of taste of “being there”. My second text, on the other hand, is more fact-based and theoretical. In this case, I wanted to reflect on a specific aspect that arose during my observations that I found particularly worthy of further investigation. It could be considered a critical ethnography because it uncovers a structure that would remain hidden without sufficient observation and reflection. On the other hand, it could simply be considered a descriptive ethnography because it explains a phenomenon that is observation-based. I used Bourgois’ work In Search Of Respect as a source of inspiration because it is at once narrative but also fact-based and theoretical. Similar to Bourgois’ text, I placed myself in the context of the field and used “I” to narrate the ethnography. The focus of this particular text, however, is not to recount my own experience at the site but to provide readers with a new way of looking at – and understanding – concert venues. The ultimate goal is to propose a theory based on my observations of the venue’s spatial arrangements.