It is the evening of 11 December in Vienna’s 15th district, and I am sitting with Jana, Lejla, and Šarlot, eagerly awaiting the screening of a documentary about a unique community choir on the occasion of its fourth anniversary. We are in Brunnengasse, known as a migrant district of Vienna, at the AU Gallery, which is starting to crowd with men, women, and children of all ages and various ethnicities, all of them warmly greeting each other. In this setting, through the documentary and a public rehearsal that soon began, I became acquainted with a most interesting Viennese singing collective, the 29th of November Choir. Vienna is a city known for its music, and one can expect many different musical networks, organizations, and professional bodies. And yet the choir members, many of whom I met at the documentary screening, do not perceive themselves as musicians at all. Rather, they claim radical amateurism, musical self-education, and self-organization. Why?
An experimental sonic collective
Members of this self-labeled “punk choir” use collective singing to “shout” social problems, “scream” social anger and discontent, and “give voice” to those who are suppressed. The choir cherishes a diverse repertoire including partisan songs, worker songs, revolutionary songs, pop music and folk pieces from former Yugoslavia, as well as the so-called repertoire of the “global left”–the most popular songs of various social movements ranging from the Spanish civil war to recent social movements.
The choir was created by Saša and Alexander, both second-generation Viennese-born Yugoslav gastarbeiters (guest workers; a full definition is here). Its name was chosen to mark the founding date of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which symbolically associated the choir with both the legacy of socialism and the Yugoslav idea.
Initially founded as a short-term artistic project dedicated to the neglected histories of guest workers from the former Yugoslavia, the choir has grown into a self-organized music collective with international membership and a strong dedication to self-learning, street performances, and flash mobs. The choir practices a strong inclusiveness in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, language, and musical genre.
While from the very beginning the repertoire did not consist only of the songs from former Yugoslavia, as the Austrian members were joined by ones from other parts of the world (such as France and Ghana), it became even more internationally oriented. The members will say that they perform in “various languages and constantly expand the repertoire,” as stated in the promotional video Bastards of Yutopia, which displays their goals and portrays their main activities–debates, rehearsals, and performances.
Bastards of Yutopia
None of the members have musical training or previous singing experience (with the exception of the conductor and most recent member to joined the choir, Jana). The internal structure of the choir does not imply fixed membership, but rather one that is relational and fluctuating. As a collectivity, it is characterized by temporal discontinuities–some singers reappeared after having been absent from rehearsals for weeks, months, or even years; others appear only at performances.
That non-centralized and self-organized nature in which music is a central link in new forms of organization, socializing, and decision-making is also visible in the fact that anyone can join the collectivity at any time and “everyone chooses his/her own level and intensity of involvement. Still, there is always a danger of transforming it into a more structured organization or disappearing,” Milan explains. The choir thus embodies the potential for sound itself to increase the ability for individuals to act collectively, also through the specific productive instability associated with the temporal nature of both the collective and its sonic actions.
In their undertakings, the choir members employ the generally rediscovered social and political productivity of utopia and the politics of hope. Particularly in the case of migrants from former Yugoslavia, it serves as an outlet for therapy and healing, enabling singers to legitimize their emotional continuity with the personal and historical past. The members of 29th of November mobilize the unique power of the sonic collective to promote idealism and believe in a better world as a “utopian rethinking of art’s relationship to the social and its political potential” (Bishop 2010: 3).
Could this singing collectivity in its very existence be a seed of a new society? Or, to put it in Angela McRobbie’s words, are these just glimpses, flashes, cracks, or moments within a landscape of capitalist domination, which entails new levels and forms of submission (McRobbie 2010: 70)? We should not forget that the potential of arts for social engagement has also been recognized by stakeholders, and contemporary forms of capitalist organization also demand cooperativeness, participation, creativity, and other practices of communal work (Gill and Pratt 2008: 19).
Yet what differentiates the 29th of November is their practice of radical amateurism with an emphasis on self-emancipation through musical self-learning, which is both a politicized strategy and a kind of existential experimental practice. The members share a common goal of resistance to the contemporary mechanisms of the privatized and deeply individualized, consumerist, and professionalized music industry by offering an alternative audio-social networking. Such radical amateurism is rooted in Rancière’s concept of self-education as an important vehicle of emancipation (see his “The ignorant schoolmaster”). Employed as a counter-response to market-led democratic individualism, the choir promotes the idea of abolishging art itself through practicing the loss of individuality as an attempt to argue an anonymous subjectivity that draws its capacity from the paradoxes of what political art should be in global capitalism.
For that reason, I believe that the potential of this choir should be considered in all possible experiential registers of the radical amateurism that it promotes. In their case the process is far more important that the outcome or impact; producing temporal socialites through music and sound is a contribution to rethinking the conservative idea of politics in favor of the little affective powers available in everyday life (Bertelsen and Murphie 2010: 139). The choir’s performances thus not only increase the capacity to act in the actual world, but also open up a wedge into an alternative ethic of living as a vision of a self-sustaining society of cooperation and solidarity, making room for new political forms that produce new distributions of power. This singing collective thus can be seen as one of a number of experiments of effective togethernesses (Stengers in Thrift 2008) that are currently taking place, aimed at disrupting given spatial and temporal arrangements and new political forms in this post-liberal moment.
Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts
More about the choir:
Short visual biography: http://vimeo.com/51376030
Story of Jana, the new conductor (in Serbo-Croatian): http://www.transeurope-express.eu/jana-dolecki-kad-aktivizam-zapeva/
I am thankful to my dear colleague Dave Wilson for English proofreading and the anonymous reviewers for their useful comments and insightful suggestions.
Bertelsen, Lone and Andrew Murphy, 2010, “An Ethics of Everyday Affinities and Powers: Félix Guattari on Affect and the Refrain”in The Affect Theory Reader, (ed.) Melissa Greg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke University Press, pp.138 – 157.
Bishop, Claire, 2012, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, New York: Verso.
Gill, Rosalind and Andy Pratt, 2008, “In the Social Factory?
Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work,” Theory, Culture & Society December 2008 vol. 25 no. 7-8, 1-30.
McRobbie, Anne, 2010, “Reflections On Feminism, Immaterial
Labour And The Post-fordist Regime, http://eprints.gold.ac.uk/6012/1/Dec201006_nf70_mcrobbie.pdf
Nigel, Thrift, 2008, Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect, New York: Routlegde.
Rancière, Jacques, 1991, The ignorant schoolmaster: five lessons in intellectual emancipation,Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
Ana Hofman received her PhD in ethnomusicology from the Graduate School for Intercultural Studies at the University of Nova Gorica, Slovenia. She is associate researcher at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts in Ljubljana and a lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Nova Gorica. She is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre of Southeast European Studies at the Unviersity of Graz.
Her research interests include music in socialist and post-socialist societies with an emphasis on former Yugoslavia; music and cultural memory, music and gender; and applied ethnomusicology. She has published numerous book chapters and articles, and in 2009 and 2010 she was a co-editor of the International Journal for the Euro-Mediterranean Studies. In 2011 she published the monograph Staging socialist femininity: Gender politics and folklore performances in Serbia (Balkan Studies Series, Brill Publishing), which was translated into Serbian in 2012.