Book Review: Exist To Resist by Matthew Smith

 

I’ve been waiting for the appearance of a book like this for decades. There’s hardly any published photographic record of the UK’s early 1990’s travelling, free party, free festival, and environmental protest scene, let alone books on the subject.*

Matthew Smith was actively involved in the scene he lovingly portrays. As the authorities started cracking down on travellers, ravers and dissenters of all sorts, the scenes became more inward-looking and more distrustful of mainstream media, cameras, and the people wielding them, whether professional or not. Insiders like Smith were thus in a position to record events in a way others couldn’t.

This long overdue volume of exciting photos that captures perfectly the feeling of being involved in protesting and partying in the early to mid 1990’s. It also covers some soundsystem-centred events from preceding years, like the Moss Side and Notting Hill Carnivals of 1989.

Some of the events photographed were pivotal. The Glastonbury Festival of 1989, for example, was “the year rave arrived at Glastonbury in a big way”. The first picture of the sequence is of a shirtless traveller toddler, with their home vehicle’s registration number and the field it was parked in scrawled on their chest. Behind the child is a tent with “DHSS World Tour” painted on it. This, together with the other images in the series, serves as an artefact of the pre-giant fence, pre-sanitised Glastonbury, an era when travellers were allowed in for free and police weren’t.

The excellent image on the cover is a fine example of the way Smith’s photography captures the energy of the protest movement while placing it in context. The roofs of The House of Commons loom through the heat haze. A truck, on top of which a woman dances and claps, is transporting a soundsystem up a busy street in central London. A man, leaning out of the truck with a microphone in one hand, gazes into the lens. It is unclear whether he’s driving, MC’ing, or both. The truck is framed by a row of police vans on the left and a cinema, showing Four Weddings And A Funeral, on the right.

I think I’m not alone in saying this: the Criminal Justice Act politicised me. Prior to the legislation, I simply wanted to rave, or help organise raves. The fact that these events were unlicensed couldn’t have interested me less. And in the period before the CJA, as long as no-one made any noise complaints, reasonable-sized parties were allowed to continue without much interference from the authorities. It wasn’t until the Criminal Justice Bill was actually on the cards that I personally realised I had to take to the streets, for the first time in my life, to try and prevent its passage through parliament. The day I was politicised constitutes the explosion that lies at the centre of Exist To Resist: the second anti-CJA demonstration in July 1994, which was characterised by thousands of ravers raving in the middle of the street in usually grey workaday Central London, grinning and dancing on the back of a truck as it drove past the Houses of Parliament, cavorting in the fountains and raving to a bicycle-powered soundsystem in Trafalgar Square. Politics was never so much fun, and Matthew Smith captures this sense of freedom and hope perfectly. Although it was mostly peaceful, the demo I attended didn’t pass without some unrest: as the parade made its way past Downing Street and some tried to force their way into the Prime Minister’s front garden. Smith suggests that there may have been agent provocateurs in the crowd. Whether this was the case or not, the resulting horse charge that my friends and I were caught up in was truly terrifying, preceded as it was by police threats to ‘sterilise the area’ if we didn’t move out of the way.

By the third march against the Criminal Justice Act, according to Smith, it was “too dangerous to not be wearing a police uniform” and it “felt like a harsh end to a beautiful dream”. The dream continues to be lived in a more low key fashion, but Smith’s wonderful images remind us of the moments when hope was brightest.

 

Order it here.

 

 

 

  • Alan Tash Lodge is one of my favourite photographers, indeed, the only one I knew about for many years, but he has never published a book of his own. Check out his site ’One Eye On The Road’ for some fantastic images. Alan Lodge was on site even before the birth of Acid House, and his intimate connection to the scenes and their people is evident from his images. In Molly Macindoe’s Out of Order, an honest and intimate portrait of the British warehouse party scene from 1997 to 2006, the photographer portrays a scene she was clearly a part of. It’s full of amazing photographs, but due to the period she covers it falls outside the period my blog is most interested in. Vinca Peterson’s No System portrays the continental European offshoot of the scene, covering the adventures of some of the British soundsystems after they took their noisy circuses to France and beyond. Again, not of direct interest to this site, but probably my favourite book on the travelling soundsystem scene. The book contains not just photographs, but also excerpts from Vinca Peterson’s diary.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: