Divide and Dissolve are a punk act from Melbourne Australia with the explicit political purpose of decolonization. They were booked to play a gig in the Bohs Bar in Phibsboro, Dublin on Friday June 1st. I was also booked to DJ the end of the night, and was very excited after doing some light research and listening to what was available online. I put together a set that I felt would go down well after this heavy and admirably unapologetic act, but it would have been inappropriate to DJ after Divide and Dissolve refused to continue playing after just two songs.
I’m writing about that happened that night not to add to a ‘debate’ or to incite ‘discussion’ about colonisation or privilege, nor to add my own ‘two cents’, but to underscore Divide and Dissolve’s own objectives as I understand them, to illustrate how their objectives operate in a world of privilege, and to praise them as uncompromising and purposeful not just as an act but in reality.
The event in question was a fundraiser for Divide and Dissolve’s tour; also playing were STRONG BOYS, eXtravision and Zahnradbahn. In spite of the drizzle that evening, there was a free barbeque for those in attendance. The suggested donation was eight euro and, it said on the event page, nobody who couldn’t afford it would be turned away. It has to be said that this was a very generous gig, offering live music and food and ensuring that the gig was accessible to all with a flexible entry cost.
A fairly informal event, Divide and Dissolve were sound-checking when I arrived; great, big menacing drones of foreboding sounds dominated the room for a couple of seconds at a time. Not like an elephant in the room, but Cthulu. Divide and Dissolve move from sounds such as these to astonishing and haunting music with a film-score quality in radical shifts of tone. I knew this from listening to them at home, and during the sound-check I got to hear just a glimpse of their other mode.
They started their set with a boom of perfectly arranged, sustained noise; the sound of fear and anxiety writ large. I’m sure many bands receive this kind of unimaginative description, but I can’t stress enough how meticulously arranged Divide and Dissolve’s sound is to incite a feeling of true horror. It was so arresting that most people shut up immediately, with some punks swaying on the waves of this aural dread which permeated their bodies.
After the piece, they addressed the audience. They explained, very clearly, that there was no speaking during their set; “We don’t play while people are talking”, going on to explain Divide and Dissolve’s purpose is Decolonisation. They said that if people wanted to talk, they could go outside, or just leave. (The venue was pretty small so this wouldn’t have been difficult) “I don’t really care”, they said, but they don’t play while people are talking. They said that if people spoke through the set, it meant that those speaking thought that their own voices were more important than hers. This was made very clear.
I really hoped that this would be respected and I admired this move. I also took the condition very seriously and wanted to be a reverent audience member to a cathartic and unique performance. Some people went outside to continue their conversations, others stayed. The audience didn’t speak for just a few minutes and it wasn’t long before there were several little chats going on while they played. After this second song ended, Divide and Dissolve announced that they would not continue to play. One audience member pointed out that Divide and Dissolve were playing in Ireland which is itself a colonised country, another that they were not so privileged as they were queer, somebody else said, concerned and upset that “Conversation is sooo important”. I’m sure it is, but I don’t for a second believe that the chats occurring during the set were impassioned debates about colonization (and even if they were!). In no time the guitarist Takiaya was surrounded by white people trying to debate their way into… what exactly? Continuing the set? That would have been a strange act of unwarranted generosity on Divide and Dissolve’s part. Or was it so that they came off as “one of the good ones?” I couldn’t understand. They were literally swarmed by several people speaking to them at once, far too many to respond to or have any kind of reasoned conversation with, which I don’t think they wanted to do, all of whom were digging themselves deeper and deeper, proving Divide and Dissolve to be entirely correct and even preventing the band from packing up their gear:
…The band were not given the silence or space that they asked for. They were heckled while on stage. Even after the performance had ended they were not given space to pack up. Members of the audience would not leave them alone until we had had to ask them to leave the venue….
I understand that some of you might be thinking that it’s a tall order to expect any Dublin pub, let alone a punk crowd, to be silent throughout a band’s whole set, but I think that’s a cop-out. I remember when the performance was breaking into an exasperating Babylonian mess, Takiaya mentioning that they had played for gigs of over 200 people. They didn’t get to finish this sentence, but I’m quite sure they were going to go on to say that those 200 people had managed to zip it for the sake of you know, actually experiencing the act. It’s worth mentioning, too, that I’ve seen Rufus Wainwright, a revered white songwriter, play in Grand Canal Dock, a huge theatre. The audience was informed that they must remain silent for the entire first act (no speaking and no clapping). The respect for Rufus as a performer meant that the crowd happily complied. Nobody carelessly assumed that their speaking voice or whatever they had to say was more important than Wainwright’s performance and the integrity of the experience. While some people who attended this concert didn’t like this decision, I think that for the most part it was rewarding for the audience and that it made for a more intimate atmosphere in what was a high-capacity gig. Divide and Dissolve didn’t have that same privilege and the audience’s non-compliance only proves this.
There is a time for ‘discussion’ and ‘debate’ and during a performance by a person of colour is certainly not it. Divide and Dissolve’s statement is fully formed and purposefully excludes those who do not listen. Their artistic/political purpose is not to invigilate discussion, to ‘get people talking’, and certainly not to provide a platform for anybody else. Their sound is their political voice; it is not verbal, it cannot be summarised or translated into English, and it can only be appreciated on its own terms. Its hardcore aesthetics should not mislead one into thinking that it is not poetic and perfectly formed to express what it communicates, and it will not tolerate being spoken over.
Their decision to not play was supported fully by the promoters, who released a statement on the event page the next day:
We would like to thank Divide and Dissolve for coming to play our show in Dublin. We 100% support their decision to stop playing at the gig the other night…
When a performer asks for silence when they are onstage, the audience should respect their request. When a person of colour asks for silence to speak in a space where the crowd is majorly white, failing to comply is not merely disrespectful, it dismisses their experience and enforces racist ideology, in a very clear and real way. There is no reverse racism….
As organisers we want to work towards practical solutions for future gigs in creating safer spaces and resolving conflict, while promoting awareness and inclusivity. We realise that we did not succeed in creating this space at Boh’s the other night and we take responsibility for that. Please get in touch. We recognise the importance of white people having conversations about racism and oppression with other white people – it is not the responsibility for the survivors of white supremacy and genocide to take on these emotional labours.
The promoters generously offered to discuss the matter privately with anybody who felt upset or slighted by Divide and Dissolve’s decision not to play the set, but that discussion would not take place on the event page: closing comments on the thread containing their statement on the event page.