Fuck in the streets like the world is on fire
Updated: Oct 15, 2019
On the cultural and spiritual synthesis of art and crime.
The term interventionism, as it is applied to the qualitatively distinct realm of cultural activity that emerged during the first global famine, was used literally by its originator, Staring at the Sun, in an interview about his art shortly before he went to prison for it: “Art that doesn't intervene in the trajectory of our society at large, whether it's moral or immoral or whatever, is just kind of fucking boring.” Thus, virtually everyone who has described the movement—if such a diffuse phenomenon could be described as a movement—identifies its origins with him, with the qualification that the contribution was largely conceptual. Staring at the Sun was a harsh noise artist and his work itself never had a significant audience, but his genius was to embed an artistic undertaking, which clearly existed on its own terms as art, within a major criminal act, which also clearly existed on its own terms as crime.
With equal plausibility, one could say the converse, that he embedded an artistic endeavor within a crime—it was an act of pure synthesis, and no particular aspect of it had priority over any other. The immediate result of this synthesis, in terms of his own activity, was a handful of videos in which Staring at the Sun sabotages train tracks in a Reagan mask, incorporating the sounds of torches on metal, burning railroad ties, and breaking glass from train signals into his soundtrack. The broader result of this synthesis, however, was the establishment of a framework that would be elaborated on extensively by many others.
A sense of the inevitability of the rapid growth of their paradigm prevailed among many of interventionism's early participants. It provided the broad outlines of a path that a number of different people were searching for. An artist, lost in the clamor of other artists, could essentially guarantee widespread recognition by integrating their work into a criminal endeavor that resulted in serious legal consequences and a video with flames or explosions in it. Likewise, a revolutionary could finally conceive of a scenario in which the jaded participants of the media ecosystem would notice and care about their heroic efforts, no longer framed primarily in moral terms, but as an unprecedented form of extreme art.
Plenty of music genres have existed within cultures suffused with criminal activity, but two served as particularly clear antecedents to key aspects of interventionism's unique combination of cultural elements: gangster rap and black metal. From the former, interventionism adopted immersion in criminal activity, the practice of violence, and conflict with the criminal justice system as criteria for legitimacy. It is doubtful that the genre would have burgeoned into such a dramatic spectacle, so rapidly, if status within it was not a function of extreme risk-taking behavior. A certain variety of suicidal fatalism also carried over from subgenres of gangster rap, which convey a readiness to die violently combined with frequent references to drug addiction, insanity, and trauma. Interventionism essentially adopted this personally troubled aspect of gangster music and translated it into high-profile acts of conflict with the dominant forces of civilization.
New York-based suicide rapper Already Dead was the first to explicitly articulate this theme, presenting his campaign against the police as a hopelessly quixotic and suicidal undertaking. His videos document the killing of four police officers, but the consumption of no fewer than fifteen different drugs, and he makes clear in a number of cases that his actions exist on their own terms, as a response to—and perhaps a means of liberation from—trauma, divorced from explicit hopes of broader social transformation. Death Grip Dope Fiend, perhaps interventionism's brightest star and a product of the juvenile justice system and childhood sexual abuse, who died making a video of an attack on a heavily guarded pipeline construction site which featured the incessant lyrical refrain I give a fuck if I die cause I'm high, most dramatically exemplifies this tendency.
Black metal, predicated since its origins on extreme conflict with the dominant forces of civilization, provided an additional moral and political framework, but more importantly, it provided a form of spirituality which overtly suffused and validated acts of violence and sabotage. This was a radical distinction from gangster culture's ontology concerning violence, which essentially accepted the premise that the closer one is to the streets and to a gun, the further one is from god. With its references to the warrior ethos of traditional societies, such as the Valhalla narrative of Norse mythology, elements of black metal translated readily and prominently into the highly syncretic, idiosyncratic synthesis that comprised interventionism.
The Portland-based trap metal/scream rap duo Dead World Red Sky, comprised of two people who were already involved in major acts of sabotage under the banner of the Earth Liberation Front before they began crafting songs and videos around their actions (and vice versa), produced some of interventionism's first truly major spectacles and were also first to exemplify this spiritual aspect of the genre's warrior fatalism. Dead World's Mark Harris, who came to his political involvement through the fairly well-worn paths of punk rock and black metal, expressed in an interview the spirituality that suffused their music thus:
"People think that you can read some book or chant some archaic terms of write some runes and, presto chango, there you are with your ancestors, talking to the gods. This insults your ancestors, and the gods won't condescend to notice. Think about who you are actually talking to. Think about what is happening in this world. The very first thing your ancestors would want from you, to know that their legacy has not been entirely abandoned, is for you to fight, and to be free, in the physical world, in reality here an now. Read some books of archaic philology and wear some costume and chant some nonsense—deafening silence from the universe. Burn the machines that are burning the world—your ancestors speak to you. The gods are within you. They don't want you to speak some forgotten language or be able to cite some inane vicissitude of ancient culture from a book you read. They want you to perceive the fundamental interconnectedness of the world, to see your relationship to the cosmos, and see that it requires you to kill what is killing that interconnectedness."
In addition to its overt spirituality, this statement is significant because it recognizes the artistic process as one of self-transformation, which, while a cliché within many creative realms, was central to the process of escalating criminality that interventionism's participants underwent. The work with the strongest impact almost always had a distinct trajectory to it, and reflected a process of both artist and audience essentially convincing themselves of increasingly extreme versions of the artist's persona. Strong arguments could be made that this process of self-transformation itself is what actually made interventionism so significant, and that the criminal acts were essentially epiphenomena.
People have been depriving music genres of their vitality by trying to define them for a long time, and interventionism is no exception, with a particularly pronounced tendency in the case of interventionism to search for art that meets minimal formal criteria, identify it as a precedent, and assume that everything subsequent is a derivative of this initial inspiration. Often, however, cultural processes are running parallel to artistic processes which have similar properties, but which are neglected in the analysis, lending too much significance to the achievements of individual artists and failing to comprehend the broader dynamics which their work reflects. In most histories of interventionism, this tendency becomes evident immediately after Staring at the Sun's contribution is described, when the choice is made to highlight either Skeptic or Little Deity. Essentially, this choice results in one of two different histories being presented, but both are false in significant regards, in the sense that both Skeptic and Little Deity contradict the essential premise of an art form explicitly devoted to sociopolitical intervention.
Skeptic is the more complex of the two cases, because he never directly produced any material within interventionism, but is intimately associated with a number of its most high-profile acts. The nature of this association is often somewhat unclear, and somewhat subject to mythology. He did not produce music, book shows, or directly participate in making videos. He does appear to have written lyrics, to have planned some of the genre's best-known crimes, and to have provided general thematic inspiration. Skeptic was in his 40s by the time interventionism became established and chose to communicate through prodigies, the best known of whom, Death Grip Dope Fiend, is an elaborate synthesis of the personas of both artists as young men and appears to have been chosen partially because of autobiographical similarities between the two of them. Skeptic always acknowledged the infinite layers of self-referentiality and deliberate construction underlying Death Grip Dope Fiend's existence, particularly when intoxicated, as in this interview:
Death Grip is the coolest motherfucker in the world. Death Grip is a rock god and a revolutionary. How are you gonna fuck with that? He's a perfect will to conflict. He wants to fight, here and now. He's about transcendence, above his fear. He's so about transcendence we gave him some of my childhood to transcend as well as his own. To understand him you have to understand that punk band Filth. Filth was kind of a joke but not a joke but kind of a joke but not a joke, you get it? To devote your creative energies to the most extreme version of yourself possible, it's helpful to understand that extreme self may be a little absurd, and to just roll with it. But that doesn't mean your most extreme self is meaningless or ridiculous—it may be your most shining aspect. Death Grip reflects a broader philosophy that whatever the immediate nature of the circumstances one finds oneself in, the fundamental mandate is always to overcome fear. This is true, but also, when we come up with his career-defining stunts, we are usually laughing. These things are by no means mutually exclusive.
The reason that Skeptic so complicates interventionism is because he was fundamental to its development and the baseline definition offered by Staring at the Sun, which is typically adopted in most analyses—art which intervenes in the trajectory of society—was frequently rejected by Skeptic in favor of a more general theory of transformation. Staring at the Sun may have been earnestly trying to save the world by burning train bridges to harsh noise music, but Skeptic was a refugee from a life of full-time political organizing, for whom interventionism seems to have been a means of channeling extreme cynicism about politics and extreme despair about the fate of the world into something other than suicide.
Predating Staring at the Sun, the first project he is publicly associated with, the glitch pop artist Jeff Bezos, illustrates this. Jeff Bezos, who exclusively appeared in videos and concerts in a Jeff Bezos mask, was best known for his video “How to Shop at Whole Foods”, which features him dancing expressively around the isles of a Whole Foods, knocking merchandise off of shelves, sprinkling himself with the contents of bulk bins, and generally experiencing a state of transcendence. The criminal context of the act is clearly intended to facilitate a state of euphoria, but also clearly isn't really intended to intervene in the operations of Whole Foods in any significant way.
Little Deity came to prominence later than Skeptic, but is equally challenging to the rudimentary definition of art that intervenes in the social trajectory, because she so unequivocally captured an essential spirit that animated interventionism, but never once made a crime central to her art. She recorded “Fuck in the Streets Like the World Is on Fire” after wildfire smoke had blanketed the streets of Oakland for months, and she performed it for the first time—a performance captured in the song's video—a few days later, at a party that erupted spontaneously at a site where respirators were being distributed by a disaster relief group. The imagery of dancing bodies and masked faces emerging in and out of the smoke, of the unbridled rapture that is evident in the movement of forms one can barely discern the contours of, is, despite its long legacy of explosions and masks, interventionism's most iconographic moment.
Little Deity was emulated heavily, in spirit as well as form, in street parties that erupted around the world amidst, and in response to, social and ecological calamities. The juxtaposition of a scene of horror with an expression of joy became the defining theme of interventionism, inaugurating a phase of artistic and cultural activity which was considerably more widespread than the strictly criminal phase. “Fuck in the Streets Like the World Is on Fire” has been sung by jubilant crowds in the streets of cities on every continent but Antarctica.
The fuck in the streets phase of interventionism helps define and elucidate the previous one, lending credence to the notion, expressed in a variety of ways by many of its participants, that the movement was fundamentally predicated on a confrontation with fear, with any given act or outcome in the external world a subordinate clause of this theme. To insist on an analysis which centralizes a particular sociopolitical outcome is to disregard many explicit statements made by interventionists, often in direct association with acts which carried severe consequences. While phrased in a variety of ways, the stated purpose of this confrontation with fear often was to access a state in which the epochal changes being experienced by humanity could be comprehended.
Little Deity was rarely willing to describe a central thesis for her work, but broke from this tendency in one interview to give this definition: “It's this process of being asleep and thinking someone must be in control who knows more than you, that there must be some room full of very serious adults who are working day and night to solve problems you don't know how to solve, and then waking up one day and seeing the sun burning end-of-the-world-red through the smoke and realizing it's not true and it never was. It's the worst realization in the world and the most beautiful. It forces a complete separation from whatever mythology you happen to have been inhabiting, and the very next thing that happens is that you fall in love or overcome your worst fear or something.”
In one of the rare interview in which he appears relatively sober, Skeptic made reference to both biology and past social movements to say something similar: “There's a biphasic model used in biology that subsumes all the varied categories of behavior and response an animal can exhibit. The two phases are appetitive and aversive. There's a broad biological unity underlying all approach behaviors, and a broad biological unity underlying all avoidance behaviors. This corresponds roughly to the cultural convention of schematizing everything according to the categories of love and fear. Interventionism is about divesting ourselves of fear. It's not about a specific outcome, because fear is the axiomatic variable that must always be confronted. Fear is why there are concentration camps and borders. Fear is what still must be confronted when there is absolutely no hope for anything. We are experiencing the greatest inducement to fear and denial—the end of the world—that has ever existed, and it is also the greatest inducement to courage and engagement that has ever existed. You have to take extreme measures to transcend this fear, but if you do so, you experience a degree of interconnectedness and joy you will never otherwise know. I guess this is why when people see us out there in the streets having orgies amidst the flames or whatever, they sometimes make the comparison with the social movements of the 1960s. The comparison is valid insofar as both scenarios involve a wholesale abandonment of fear and an embrace of human unity. But the comparison obviously falls apart in the sense that 60s counterculture seemed to be predicated on fearlessness by denying the existence of adversity—a unique artifact of the material comfort in which that generation was raised—whereas our movement is predicated on fearlessness by confronting adversity.”
Death Grip Dope Fiend, who so often said what Skeptic said more concisely, phrased it thus when he took his mask off for the first time in the video for “Take Drugs Worship Fire”: “The human mind clings to illusions of comfort long after they're useful. Everyone's in denial, regardless of what they say they know. I'm choosing to live in truth. I'm choosing not just to say that the world is burning, but to act like it, to acknowledge there's no consequence left to be afraid of, and to be free.”
It should be acknowledged that other significant participants in interventionism consistently offered at least somewhat divergent accounts of its fundamental nature. Members of the collective Dreaming While Awake While Breaking Things always insisted their work was pedagogic. Beginning with “How to Build an Electronic Timer”, a collaboration with Jeff Bezos, their videos consistently demonstrated the protocol for a dangerous or subversive act while also documenting an instance of it (in the case of “How to Build an Electronic Timer”, the use of the timer with an incendiary device). But this notion of pedagogy is essentially a variation on the notion of affecting a sociopolitical outcome. It is a matter of strategic emphasis. Likewise, many participants in the fuck in the streets phase emphasized thrill seeking per se, particularly those who engaged in the controversial practice of traveling to particularly perilous or chaotic locations to throw wild, often suicidal, parties. Bright Pain's “Don't Fucking Tell Me Where to Die”, a video that documents the death of every band member while they joyously party amidst a street battle between warring militias in New Orleans, is the most famous instance of this. However, thrill seeking is essentially a variation in emphasis on the notion of confronting fear.
All such attempts at a definition of a true fundamental nature or theme overlook the reality that the phenomenon did not necessarily emerge from the conscious, purposeful agency of the individuals who participated. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, episodes of a phenomenon called dancing mania periodically swept through Europe, involving frenzied crowds abandoning their routine lives to dance manically for days on end, often until they collapsed from exhaustion, sometimes to death. The basis of the phenomenon remains a mystery, and theories ranging from inadvertent consumption of hallucinogens to a social response to hardship have been proposed. Very few theories posit that individual dancers, singers, or musicians played a decisive role. In our era, such conclusions, at least implicitly, are virtually inescapable. But it may ultimately be no more valid to apply to interventionism the notion that the phenomenon in some fundamental sense originated with, or reflects the legacy of, individual artists. On some level, the simple reality that unprecedented circumstances correspond to unprecedented behaviors must be acknowledged.