Culture Jam: Bringing Performance and Narrative to Electronic Events

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As someone shy and not incredibly confident, I used to find the idea of Culture Jam needlessly flashy and encased in bell and whistles. A great deal of attendees were exhibitionists of the first degree, and HIPSTERS also sprung to mind on a fairly frequent basis. For a quiet person like myself, the performative element of Culture Jam is quite confronting. I dislike show ponies.

But after witnessing the evolution of this crew over the years, I can no longer question the incredible creative vision and direction Culture Jam have taken. For many promoters thinking inside the box, the party is confined to its acts and parameters. Get the sound on, get the floor filled, try to make the numbers work.

For Culture Jam, promotion is a wealth of endless possibilities, to push events to their limits in terms of theatrics, use of space – and most of all – having fun.

Culture Jam are a flamboyant crew whose focus of events and music is eclectic, and infuses circus and theatrical elements in an interactive setting. They act as conduit for many groups of freaks and performers, who see Culture Jam as their stage to dress up and role play as the director requires in a freeform jam based on theme.

From the outside looking in, it would seem that the worst problem at one of these events you could have is being limited in imagination. Not even wardrobe or budget is a limit for many of the fringe Culture Jam attendees, as their creative aptitude comes to the forefront. Many fashionistas create their thematic dress from opt shop finds, hard rubbish and from where-ever else trash can be converted to treasure.

The music at CJ events is also a primary focus for the events, especially earlier on in the formative years of this crew. They started off in June 2010 by smartly deciding to book Opiuo when he had begun peaking in popularity – with their show Cheeky Beats at the now-closed Miss Libertines. Miss Libertines’ focus was always on quality beats, so Culture Jam didn’t flex much of their focus on theatrics at this point.

CJ continued the Miss Libertine “beats” series in 2010 with Sneaky, Tweaky and Freaky Beats (note: there were three seperate events), which showed their format for progressive types of electronic music ordinarily confined to doof and outdoor events – acts such as Circuit Bent, Kalya Scintilla, Tetrameth, Meat Axe, Hugo & Treats and Sun Control Species. This helped gather the kind of creatively performative and interactive audience who only usually dress up and attend festivals like Rainbow Serpent.

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CJ also held outdoor parties at CERES Environmental Park for their yearly series Stacks On, which showed their eclectism in music programming with progressive trance, hip-hop and more downtempo psychedelia with acts like Hypnagog.

Culture Jam’s real antics started really flexing in the lead-up for their event Barrel of Monkeys. A couple of their crew dressed up as monkeys and skateboarded around Melbourne CBD for a promotional video. A picture of their shenanigans featured on the cover of MX, and the daily public transport rag’s massive circulation helped push Culture Jam’s audience and vision to the next level.

During 2012-13, Culture Jam’s themes gathered strength with the gangster-themed Unusual Suspects production – featured the insane rockabilly cabaret of Brisbane’s Monster Zoku Onsomb – hailing at their new spiritual home of the Revolt Artspace in Kensington. Their use of this space was continued with their monkey follow-up – Monkey Business, which saw CJ implement a pirate theme on that venture.

After Culture Jam successfully, staged and framed the post-apocalypic future-themed 2013 event The World Beyond (also at Revolt), I was forced to admit that this crew were the real deal and not just staging this for promotional kicks- they were actually a legitimate and original movement, and are a major contribution to Australia’s electronic music history and culture.

The owner and I once had our differences in the public circle about music vs promotion, but we have always kept the peace, enough to chat about his project.

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Culture Jam director Michael Scarlett is a very bright and good-looking character, and his approachable, affable nature, and broad, easy-going grin always have to make me check my jealousy levels. Most of us wish we could be as happy as Michael seems to be all the time.

In online conversation, Michael whimsically recalls his foundational days. He describes himself as “that young, sparkly kid on acid up the front (of the crowd) loving life”. Jealousy levels increasing. I confide with him I was the one caught in introspective LSD mind-traps up the back. Of course, he laughs at this and we wonder if we have crossed paths in earlier days.

We discover we both spent nights partying in Brunswick at the renegade Oven Street warehouse, which was a centre for freaks and bootleggers a couple of years ago. We also go over some memories of Albert Street venue (which was not supposed to be used for big parties) Playspace.

Michael gets excited in recollection, “…we did this one party there called Brunswiki Beats, where we dressed the entrance as a fake birthday party with balloons and streamers. At the door you had to say that you were there for ‘Rob’s Birthday’. Then when you walked around the corner there (were) 400 people going nuts and a bootleg bar.

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Michael’s enthusiasm and zest led to him taking the helm and inspiring others putting on park parties around Melbourne’s northern suburbs and assisting yearly doof charity Earthdance as creative director. Inspired by (amongst others) psychedelic electronic crew Third Ear, Michael formed Culture Jam with the assistance of his good friend Aaron Cooper aka Cat Party.

“Yeah, Aaron was also behind the concept of Culture Jam and Hellzapoppin’ Evenings (an electro-swing oriented event), and has an incredibly creative mind…”

It is maintained mostly that the seeds for Culture Jam started as a solo effort. Michael surmises that Culture Jam was not conceptually founded by a collective because he had “specific creative vision”, but recognises that a great deal of the project’s success is linked to his collaborations. He had incredible support from friends, creative visionaries and groups of maverick performers who embraced Mick ‘s new possibilities and envelope-pushing.

During the conversation I managed to bring up the word “Hipster” to Michael. It gave him a bit of a beamer,
“I find truth stranger than fiction sometimes, and I love people that are walking parodies of themselves! The universe has an amazing sense of humour. I think a hipster taking themselves seriously is an example of this. I met a hipster In Berlin. I felt like he was part of a race of people, who live on an island, and have their own accents. It was fascinating!””

This sort of thing has helped provide Michael with inspiration for his bravest project yet – The Town.

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The Town (on Easter Weekend 2015) is going to be Culture Jam’s first event staged outside of Melbourne in the Strathbogie Ranges. The premise for this event is that they will create their very own town for the Easter weekend for a population of 800 people maximum, as “a place of like-minded folk who have declared the real world a joke.”

Culture Jam is asking for participants to choose a “suburb” to move into (including locations Pleasantville, Hipster Town, Funkytown and Vanland), complete with its own mayor and media. The Town is touted to feature a church with weddings, fashion police, a general store, tea-house, beauty parlour, barber shop, bike cabs, canoeing on the lake, cafe, DIY school, op shop, library, and special Adventure Town for workshops and “missions”.

Amongst the day-to-day grinders in The Town you will find Fashion Police, Naughty Nurses, Town Media (no, I won’t .ed), Lollypop Ladies, Steampunk Delivery Boys, PYROMANIAC FIREMEN?! You are also invited to take on your own Town career.

Of course, there will be a fun and funky soundtrack to the town featuring JFB (UK), Thriftworks (US) and Frivolous (Canada) as headliners.

In terms of events, Michael attributes part of the success to spreading them out.

“I’ve kept it safe….most of my parties do well enough to have some profit, and (spreading events out) allows me the time to do this at the level it’s at now.”

Current hot music acts Michael would like to clue you into are Smilk, Ripple and Circuit Bent (“constantly progressing….and keep pushing boundaries”), Formidable Vegetable Sound System (“on the live tip”), and the irrepressible Hugo of Hugo & Treats and Rap News (“…constantly expanding his mind into the collective… and still has some big tricks up his sleeve”).

He’d also like to thank Ryan at Revolt – also helping with The Town, “and also Tom (The Chief) and all my beautiful friends helping with this ridiculously epic job of creating The Town.”

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My talk with Michael yielded personal dividends for me as a journalist in allowing me to confront my own aptitude for hasty judgement and negative stereotypes.

My appreciation for these showy, glitzy sort of events is something I had to develop a detached and uninvolved viewpoint for, in order to frame things from a positive internal space. Individually, people are too complex to be driven into one small derogatory term. People have always enjoyed role-playing and performance, and it goes without saying that dressing up to go to party is something that really brings an occasion to life.

I mean, I’m a pretty hard guy to impress. I held onto the view for a while that they were just fishing for attention, which was – I admit – a negative perspective. These guys have more creative integrity than you could imagine. I have since had to readjust my values and look at things from a broader perspective, and recognise that sometimes a good gig isn’t just about musical strength.

My inevitable conclusion is that every theatrical ensemble needs a director, and Culture Jam provides this purpose for spontaneous, real-life flash shenanigans.

In short, maybe we need to take more time and let things unfold before we pass judgement on others. Sometimes image and fashion in events isn’t just posing, but constitutes incredible creative depth and vision, vision that assists in making music three-dimensional.

Hipster – in this context – isn’t a dirty word.

Written by Kristian Hatton

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Culture Jam website

The Town website

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