The End of “Authentic Austin”: A Cautionary Fable For The Creative Classes

Memories of Authentic Austin pt. 1: taxidermy art at Uncommon Objects

Austin, Texas is a weird city — but not in the sense that its developers and tourist industry would want to admit. The “weird” that figures into the city’s unofficial slogan feels more these days like “awkward” than, say, “joyfully spontaneous.” This is particularly the case as the city continues its attempts to simultaneously be a freewheeling, “buy local” bastion of folksy cultural experimentation and a juggernaut of artless techno-bureaucracy. All the attempts to somehow fuse these irreconcilable cultures look like they are ready to fail even more spectacularly than they have in burgs like San Francisco, and Austin stalwarts are well within their rights to worry about the complete eradication of those parts of the culture which are certifiably unique. As we will see, these fears may be justified, but they are also misplaced.

The final death of this city’s legendary “hip” arts culture has been prophesied to me a countless number of times, by almost everyone with a veteran presence in a marginal field of creativity, and seemingly every time a different watershed event has been cited as delivering the coup de grace: the change of address for the Bouldin Creek Café, the expansion of the South by Southwest music festival into non-musical fields, the proposed flat-lining of National Endowment for the Arts funding in 2017, the post-pandemic regulatory nightmare that annihilated the city’s live music industry. The arrival in town of ideologically ambivalent entrepreneurs Joe Rogan and Elon Musk[1] is just the latest in this series of speculative death blows to the Authentic American Counterculture™. Now, while any significant social change at this point can herald the last phase in the replacement of ramshackle warts-‘n-all authenticity with a self-righteous, nominally “creative” Potemkin Village built upon a model of faux-progressive corporate cool, no one should fool themselves that this was not the result of patient, long-term planning. The rule of Austin by countercultural elements, to the degree this ever happened, was an interregnum — a transitional phase towards a more robust managerial state. The designers of such likely knew they could count on the creative classes’ naïve belief in perpetual progress, which often causes its believers to mistake the latest manifestation of anything for its final form, to encourage a sufficient degree of urban housekeeping before their eventual dismissal. Gentrification and related phenomena are not a sudden, panicked reassertion of dominance by a power structure that feels control slipping from its hands the moment the flag of bohemia is planted in the soil; the managerial state has found it perfectly acceptable to cede control in the short term to elements who could then be conveniently discarded upon reaching certain objectives (in this case, the homesteading of derelict neighborhoods from Berlin to New York, which could then be made safe for more aggressive commercialization).This is, however, only part of a larger story concerning the unwitting subservience of arts enclaves to the social forces which they ostensibly oppose.

Let me immediately state for the record that I do not find the ongoing corporate development bonanza of Austin, and other American cities like it, to be more desirable than the idealized vision put forth by the nearly vanquished bohemians. I would certainly count myself among their number when criticizing local phenomena like The Domain, a multi-use commercial and residential sector that promises a diversification of experience unavailable elsewhere but, via the “innovation” of placing housing units flush up against luxury retail outlets, mainly just provides an accelerated version of the experience already on tap at Simon Properties’ standardized shopping malls (yes, Simon Properties is one of the primary developers of the complex). For those unfortunate enough to believe such places would make good on a promise of sublime experiential enhancement, I imagine they must be as dispiriting as the most moribund Chicago housing project or Paris banlieue. I am in agreement that, by contrast, there is something generally healthier about urban features like “walkability”, numerous public fora for non-commercial expression, dining choices that do not involve processed garbage, and a skepticism towards the conflation of cosmetic novelty with ethical progress. There is also the issue of my direct participation in some creative activities that push the envelope of what most people are willing to experience — it is convenient, now and then, to have public spaces in which audiences have some expectation of this kind of output, since it really does become tiring having to deal with violent reprisals from entertainment seekers whose big night out was just ruined.

Truly, I understand the near-universal need for people to closely commune with others who share their elective identities, as well as the clinging bitterness and powerlessness that comes from seeing these communities strategically dissolved. However: this story needs to take into account how the contemporary artist has long since become a sort of critic-practicioner hybrid whose success depends on at least attempting regular acts of boundary dissolution. The polymath Iannis Xenakis (himself an architect and stochastic music composer) famously predicted that the musician of the future would have an “identification card” comprised of such roles as “paleontologist, geneticist, biologist, physician, chemist, mathematician, historian and expert in human sciences.”[2] While I feel he was being far too gracious in assuming that there were many others capable of his own level of genius, there can be no doubt that art has charted a gradually intensifying trajectory towards becoming involved in, or at least commenting upon, all other human disciplines. When seen this way, is there a single urban neighborhood or zone even capable of containing this degree of ambition?

This brings us to the problem with the idealized vision of the artists’ community, which is that it always seems to be conceptualized as a designated allotment of the city’s real estate, in this way becoming a “functional cluster” of specially themed zoning that subtly discourages activity outside of this clearly demarcated zone. The story of American urban bohemia is one of a self-willed confinement to such specialized ghettoes / arts districts, and in this manner, the community that is supposed to defy the utilitarian city’s organizational logic through its advanced interpretive and expressive abilities is really just providing confirmation of that logic. As suggested above, the artist’s societal mission has obstinately expanded beyond that of the artisan or craftsman, and it might follow that this increasing ability to penetrate all areas of society would be accompanied by a desire to experiment with all practically usable space. While that desire certainly exists, materialized evidence of it is thin on the ground. In the words of architectural critic Peter Blake, there is still too much trust placed in the sorts of people who have no interest in postponing gentrification for the sake of society’s most ambiguously defined contributors: and yet “those who […] design our communities do not understand what communities are all about.”[3]

The American struggle for cultural authenticity has, whether out of sheer necessity or lack of inventiveness, been one in which the re-imagination of urban space has seemingly been de-prioritized in favor of merely “getting a seat at the table”. One could argue, I suppose, that the placement of a new indie music venue, dance studio or bookstore within a strip mall constitutes enough of a victory for cultural diversity, and anyway wouldn’t we all prefer that space be used for such ends rather than to accommodate, say, the fifth Starbucks to be found within that particular square mile. Yet it can also be argued that the need for designated areas is already an acknowledgement of a heels-dug-in, preservationist stance; an admission that one’s culture only has the ability to adapt to so many environmental circumstances or to appeal to a limited number of the citizenry. The Situationist-aligned thinker Ken Knabb touched upon this when positing that “The common desire to live outside the dominant society, since it could only be realized partially by living on the margins of that society, economically and otherwise, resulted in the reintroduction of survival as the basis for collective cohesion”.[4]

Indeed, many artists’ belief that they were on a survival footing, rather than participating in a truly expansionist adventure, was arguably one the main motivations behind clamoring for the oft- ridiculed existence of homogeneous “safe spaces”. An earlier iteration of this same term referred to public spaces or private businesses where schoolchildren could seek shelter from potential predators (ironic, given that their schools themselves are easily one of the most violent environments they will encounter en route to adulthood), and the adult application of the term refers to an even more implausible refuge from any form of potential confrontation or critique. This is not so much a condemnation of those artists’ fragility and un-adaptability as it is a confirmation of their strategic shortsightedness, in this case betting the bank on the establishment of isolated spaces rather than on continuous environments. Failure to make this shift in the perception of terrain does hold the key to the predictable collapse of “artists’ communities” worldwide; the more complicity with a policy of containment exists, the more over-reliance upon the urban planning authorities’ permission to engage in creative activities.

The language of radical urban planning has long been rife with terminology that conceptualizes the city as being more than the sum of its built structures, and that imbues it with a fluidity not immediately visible in the endless urban processions of glass and steel. Take, for example, Jonathan Raban’s contrasting of the “hard city” (its literally concrete, material nature) with the “soft city” comprised of each urbanite’s personal interpretation of their surroundings, or Archigram figurehead Cedric Price’s own detailed thoughts on embracing the ephemerality of the city. These are in fact worth quoting in detail here:

The increasingly obvious reduction of the permanence of many institutions […] allied with the mass availability of all means of communication, have demanded an almost sub-conscious awareness of the vast range of influences and experiences open to all at all times. This dimension of awareness enables a questioning by all of existing facilities available in, say, a metropolis- not merely an assessment of physical or measurable limitations. The city today works in a constipated way, in spite of its physical and architectural limitations. The legacy of redundant buildings and the resultant use patterns acts as a straitjacket to total use and enjoyment.[5]

The Situationists’ impassioned and sustained calls for re-imagination of the urban landscape, including Ivan Chtcheglov’s seminal Formulary For a New Urbanism, are also worth mentioning, if only to remind of the sheer ludic audacity which has sailed by the more professionally-oriented among the creative classes. In his vision of a “kind of ultra-Paris […] a city of play”[6], Chtcheglov was perhaps among the first to suggest the actual absorption of the “hard city” by the “soft city,” whose districts would now not be identifiable by their functionality (financial, entertainment, government, “creative” etc.) but rather by received emotional impressions ranging from “happy” and “bizarre” to “sinister”. This was an early salvo in the intensely committed Situationist campaign to define urban space by its ambiences more than by its built structures, and to discard the functionalist imperatives of the city in favor of chance meetings and the transformation of urban navigation into a grand game.

To the extent that an effectively creative counterculture has thrived within the United States, it came about when dismissing the idea that geographical proximity to other likeminded creators, followed by the eventual ability to claim a few city blocks of turf for themselves, was the sine qua non of a truly unimpeded cultural expression. The realization that social organization and spatial organization need not perfectly overlap, and the consequent rejection of the conservationist / preservationist compromise with regards to urban space, has extended beyond residential space and to the institutions normally meant to house (to literally domesticate) such expression. In fact, it could be argued that most unofficial or unapproved modes of expression, initially rejected by the “non-creative” classes and by arts institutions, lengthened their reach and strengthened their resilience precisely by straying from arts ghettoes and from sites which already outwardly bore the markers of bohemia. The example of graffiti’s ascent to a generally acknowledged art form probably doesn’t need to be re-stated, nor the examples of activities from coordinated dancing to skateboarding, which have been similarly unrestricted in the venues that they choose as expressive staging grounds. In actively seeking terrain that was not societally sanctioned as cultural space, these forms were possibly imbued with more drama than they would be otherwise, and resulted in what Noriyuki Tajima called “hybrid structures” (e.g. when “skate-boarders use handrails for their special boarding techniques” or “a young group of teenagers uses the mirrored glass façade of high tech buildings for their dance practice.”)[7] Sure, the examples provided here may not have much to say to the serious avant-gardist; they might bemoan the lack of butoh dance or acousmatic music in ambiguous spaces not specially commissioned for such. Yet there exists a healthy parallel tradition of “unofficial” staging for radically new forms as well (certainly during those formative periods where almost nobody knew what they were seeing and how to react to it): could the lack of experimentation in unfamiliar fora betray too much of a desire for the kind of banal respectability ascribed to the hated beneficiaries of gentrification? Or could it just be a capitulation to the eternal “it’s already been done” mope; a reluctance to take risks on par with those taken by groups like (to give one of a thousand possible examples) Hi Red Center?[8]

Furthermore, an artistically-minded engagement with the city does not need to have the staging of works as a prerequisite: the old Parisian ideal of the flâneur, or poetically-minded wanderer, hints at a yet more sublime way of refusing to let one’s immediate surroundings just be accepted “as is,” and to let the mere act of perambulating the city become a generator of hitherto undiscovered affinities and new ideas. Luc Sante, in his ode to the restless and chaotic Paris of a bygone era, notably describes this activity as follows:

…an active and engaged form of interaction with the city, one that sharpens concentration and enlarges imaginative empathy and overrides mere tourism. The true flâneur takes in construction sites and dumps, exchanges greetings with bums and truckers and the women washing their sidewalks in the morning, consumes coffees and gros rouge at as many bus stop cafes as terrace-bedecked establishments […] spends more time in Monoprix than the Louvre.[9]

It is sometimes difficult to raise a counter-protest against those who feel that such a romanticized view of the city is impossible in the new sterilized Domains of this country and the world. Yet new augmentations of reality have continually multiplied the possibilities for grafting a wild subjective experience onto the empire of big box retailers and identikit apartment blocks, and you really don’t even have to wait for some form of A.R. tech to accomplish this. My friends in the Phonography Austin group, for example, achieve as much with simple audio recording devices, as does my Danish colleague Jacob Kirkegaard, who chimes in with the very flâneuriste realization that “the weirdest place where you’ve never been…where you’d never dream to go…is just right behind your heels.”[10]

Meanwhile, the “marginals milieu” of the past few decades also knew that the spatial dispersion of community members did not mean sounding the death knell of “authenticity,” and so they found ways to scaffold over their inhabited towns and cities with their own virtual cities, the polyphonous weirdness of which might have even made Chtcheglov perform a cartoon double-take. It is easy to forget how maddeningly specialized the culture for self-printed literature was (the number of circulating ‘zines in the 1990s reaching the five-digit mark easily), or how that and parallel developments outstripped much of the present-day WWW in terms of participants’ ideological diversity and levels of expressive nuance. As to that latter development, you’d be forgiven for occasionally pining for the halcyon days of proud “THE ‘NET IS NOT A TV” sloganeering and the raging torrents of useful, actionable information that were once more commonplace than wall-to-wall agitprop and pop cultural jokes with a shelf life of minutes. This, too, was a “soft city” with seemingly limitless potential for sustaining existing communities and — more importantly — bypassing the aforementioned survival / self-preservation instinct just long enough for new communities to be formed.

With exactly that in mind: those who view themselves as preservationists of capital-A Authenticity would do well to start taking notice, if they haven’t done so already. They are very likely to soon be in a situation where the battle for their own geographical territory will be lost (if not from factors already mentioned, then from the post-COVID compulsory flattening of experience), and the battle for this virtual space will have been lost as well. Consider: it is poetically appropriate that, in the aforementioned Domain, one of the main non-retail employers is a big tech facility within which an army of content moderators work around the clock to censor whatever dissenting speech falls outside the “community standards” molded collectively by State intelligence agencies and corporate interests (again, community design from those who have no idea what that term even means). Almost to a fault, these drones are youthful and “hip” members of the creative class, convinced of their holding the reins of cultural development. Yet, as they toil away in offices unironically bedecked with imagery of rainbow-surfing unicorns and posters bearing elementary school admonitions like BE A BUDDY NOT A BULLY, there can be no clearer example than their activity of forcing limitations on acceptable thought and thereby applying a freezing effect to new cultural developments.

When not actively neutering culture in this way, these employers of hipster censors manage to somehow flatter themselves that they are at the vanguard of cultural development merely by reacting to existing cultural trends. We seek in vain for examples of these multinationals, and the governments they collude with for favors, actually bearing the torch of “progressive” cultural change rather than merely fortifying this process once there is a solid enough social consensus approving of ‘x’ or ‘y’ changes. Their lousy stewardship of cyberspace makes the rhapsodies of urban theorists like Melvin Webber (stated all the way back in revolutionary 1968) all the more poignant and relevant: the “recent expansion of knowledge has triggered a rapid explosion of life-space…both geographically and cognitively,”[11] quoth Webber. When considering this knowledge, as the main product of the virtual infosphere, is cumulative and can survive the erosion of multiple physical enclaves or geographically-based communities, it should be frightening to consider that the currently most potent communicational tool ever developed rests with an elite minority. Even gentrification of city neighborhoods is not a final, irreversible stage of development (no more than the arrival in cities of bohemian arts districts is). The gentrification of the infosphere will be a much more difficult stage to ever recover from.

[1] I am using Musk here as a metonym for Tesla, Inc., which has relocated select facilities to Austin from California — I have no confirmation that he actually has a residence within the city limits.

[2] Iannis Xenakis, R. Brown & J. Rahn (1987). “Xenakis on Xenakis.” Perspectives on New Music, 25(1): 16–63.

[3] Blake, Peter (1977). Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked. Boston / Toronto: Atlantic Monthly Press / Little, Brown and Company.

[4] Knabb, Ken (1997). “On the Poverty of Hip Life” in Public Secrets. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets.

[5] Price, Cedric & Littlewood, J. (1968). “The Fun Palace.” The Drama Review: TDR, 12(3): 127–134.

[6] Sante, Luc (2015). The Other Paris. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

[7] Tajima, Noriyuki (2006). “Tokyo Catalyst: Shifting Situations of Urban Space.” Perspecta, 38:79–90.

[8] Hi Red Center were a Japanese ‘intermedia’ ensemble active in the 1960s. They were known for absurdist public happening such as their 1964 “Cleaning Action,” in which the trio wore white lab coats and surgical masks while “cleaning” a Tokyo city street for several hours with abrasive elements like naphthalene, wire brushes and sandpaper. All told, the group’s activities served as landmark pieces for the performing arts underground within urban Japan, illustrating both art’s potential to disrupt customary habits while also being a sort of urban camouflage.

[9] Sante (2015).

[10] Jacob Kirkeggard, interview with the author, March 19 2021.

[11] Webber, Melvin (1968). “The Post-City Age.” Daedalus, 97(4): 1091–1110.

Sound artist, psychopathologist, author of “To Hear The World With New Eyes,” “MicroBionic, ”“Unofficial Release” and “Sonic Phantoms” (with Barbara Ellison).