Sunday, June 03, 2007

Space is the Place

A pleasant evening at the Camberwell Squatted Centre in South London last night, spent watching the fantastic Sun Ra film Space is the Place, as well as a short film about the Association of Autonomous Astronauts (AAA). Later I played some of my extensive collection of space-themed music. Last night this included everything from Pharoah Sanders (Astral Travelling) to The Rezillos (Flying Saucer Attack) via Klaxons (Gravity's Rainbow), with some Derrick Carter (Tripping among the stars) thrown in.

I began accumulating this collection when I was part of the Disconaut node of the AAA (1995-2000). The premise of the AAA was a global network committed to challenging the state and corporate monopoly of space through the development of community-based space exploration programmes. Within this network, Disconaut AAA focused on dance music as a vehicle for space exploration. Some of the Disconaut material from our Everybody is a Star! newsletter is archived at Uncarved, but the full story of the AAA remains to be told - and maybe the story isn't finished yet, as AAA Kernow (not unconnected to Nocturnal Emissions) apparently relaunched itself last month. I have reflected on the AAA experience elsewhere and will be considering all of this further at this site, but for now here's the founding text of Disconaut AAA:

Disconauts are go! (from 'Everybody is a Star!', no.1, 1996)

Forget Apollo, NASA and the Space Shuttle... the most exciting explorations of space in the last 30 years have been carried out through music.

Emerging on the radical fringes of jazz in the 1950's Sun Ra (1914-1993) and his Intergalactic Research Arkestra (as his band was later known) set the space vibe in motion with interstellar explorations like 'Space Jazz Reverie', 'Love in Outer Space', 'Disco 3000', and the film 'Space is the Place' [picture is of Sun Ra in film].

Described by one critic as "a comic strip version of Sun Ra", George Clinton developed his own funky cosmic Afronaut mythology in the 1970's through his work with Funkadelic and Parliament. For instance, the album "Mothership Connection" (1975) is based around the concept of aliens visiting earth to take the funk back to their own planet.

Sun Ra and Clinton's work can be read as a sort of sci-fi take on Marcus Garvey. While Garvey dreamt of Black Star Liners shipping back people from slavery across the ocean to an African utopia, they leave the planet altogether.

Space continued to be a preoccupation during the 1970s disco boom. Derided by rock critics for its lack of serious content, disco had a distinct utopian element. In disco the intensity of pleasure on the dancefloor was reimagined as an ideal for living rather than just a Saturday night release. The implicit fantasy was of a 'Boogie Wonderland' where music, dancing and sex were organising principles rather than work and the economy. "Lost in music, feel so alive, I quit my nine-to-five", as Sister Sledge put it.

In the unpromising social climate of the 1970's, this wonderland was sometimes projected into space. Earth, Wind and Fire (who recorded 'Boogie Wonderland') combined elements of Egyptology and sci-fi with albums like 'Head for the Sky' (1973) and 'All n All' (1977) with its cover pic of a rocket taking off from a pyramid. In the late 1970s there was a rash of space themed disco hits like Sheila B. Devotion's 'Spacer' and Slick's '(Everybody goes to the) Space Base' (1979), the latter imagining the space base as disco and social centre rather than military-industrial installation.

Some of these space records can be viewed as simple cash-ins on the popularity of Star Wars and similar films of this period, but was there something deeper going on? While the sale of disco records reaped big profits for the record companies, the logic of the dancefloor was potentially at odds with the society of domination. On the floor pleasure was elevated above the puritan work ethic and hierarchies of class, race, gender and sexuality were (sometimes) dissolved.

Discos (like today's dance spaces) could have been the launchpad for explorations of different worlds on earth and beyond, powered by the Dance Disco Heat energy on the floor. In this light the disco icon par excellence, the glittering mirror ball, has to be re-evaluated. Detailed archaeological investigations of the alignment of these spheres of light suspended high above the dancefloor will doubtless reveal that they were installed to equip dancers with a rudimentary astronomical knowledge to help them find their way around the universe.

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