Why we started a club night for our teacher, Mark Fisher

Why we started a club night for our teacher, Mark Fisher

For k-punk — Ahead of an event hosted at the ICA in his memory, three of the late Mark Fisher's students remember their lecturer and describe the ways they have endeavoured to keep his fierce spirit and energy of his music writing alive.

Those nights in packed out clubs were a reunion. Dalston, New Cross, Peckham, the Old Kent Road. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were there together, celebrating. Celebrating the life and thought of our teacher, whose influence changed each of our lives, in both our collective grieving and in our joy.

Mark Fisher taught us as undergraduates. In our second year, we spent weeks dedicated to his Popular Modernism module, which focused on moments of the “new” in popular culture. From the androgynous cyborg Grace Jones, to pop-collagist Richard Hamilton and the desire laden sounds of Roxy Music – the latter both Newcastle graduates. Mark’s teachings reached out to working-class kids and helped them bloom in their academic studies, as they realised that the culture they brought with them – film, music, comics, TV – deserved and commanded a critical place in the university.

His best moments were his angriest, when he would swear and seethe at the front of the classroom about the injustices of neoliberal capitalism. Mark knew what it felt like to not belong, and it was this sense of not-belonging that he shared with his students, creating a furtive bond of mutual support. At the end of the first year of his Popular Modernism class in 2015, he sent us the ‘No More Miserable Monday Mornings’ mix. He was proud of us, his Monday morning class, and demonstrated it in the best way he knew: by making a mix.

Following his tragic suicide in 2017, we were heartbroken, losing one of our best in the fight against the forces at the root of our disaffection. Assemblies were established, meetings arranged with senior management to demand greater support for staff and students, tears were shed. The first party we held for Mark was rustled up in the backfield studios; the oddest wake after an intensely emotional departmental meeting.

For k-punk mural at Goldsmiths University, 2017, photo by Archie Smith

There were two rooms, one playing Mark’s mixes and the other playing Sapphire &  Steel – which Mark cited in his exploration of the slow cancellation of the future. We battled to get the DVD out of the library, coming up against stupid university bureaucracies in the form of blocked library cards and maxed out limits. People donated library cards to the cause and brought Sainsbury’s bags full of drinks and snacks. We folded out paint-covered tables to bear their weight, and we had a dance.

Later that night, Kode9 dedicated the first hour of his five-hour Ø set at Corsica Studios to Mark. We arrived as a horde of people who didn’t really know each other, tumbling off the 172 bus into a queue outside the club. Once inside, we gathered on the empty dance floor, squinting in the face of a swelling green laser. Everyone stood on the dance floor, some holding each other. “Come on!” an uninformed party goer yelled, “It’s as if someone’s died!” as the eerie sparsity of Japan’s Ghosts felt like it was slowly sucking up all oxygen in the little club under Elephant and Castle’s railway arches.

Email from Archie to Kitty, 8 August 2019

A year on, For k-punk became the necessary gathering point after the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture, held annually at Goldsmiths. It was put in motion by Natasha Eves and Matt Colquhoun simply asking, but what about the music? After the assemblies, reading groups, mural painting and pin-badge distribution of the previous year, the lecture format felt unfinished in its homage to Mark and the energy of his music writing that, as Simon Reynolds says, influenced a generation.

Lecturers, students, friends and fans of Marks’ stood in freezing cold January queues alongside strangers. The first event opened with disaster: the venue turned away one of the artists due to play, then the owner resisted our request to play Kanye’s Life of Pablo in its entirety. We were texting people, urging them to leave the post-lecture pub session and to get to the venue immediately. All of a sudden, people flowed in, and the space became ours. Kodwo Eshun, who had delivered the lecture earlier that evening, was one of the first to bust a move. At the close of the night, the venue manager had the cheek to ask if we wanted to do a weekly night for them. We declined. 

Every year, we struggled to pool adequate funds to make the events happen. We’ve pulled favours, begged, borrowed, and occasionally paid fines when someone else decided to steal the equipment. Yet we persevered through the anxiety and inexperience, to produce two more events that year at SET Dalston. The first, titled Consciousness Razing, a 12-hour programme playing on and exploring Mark’s spin on the praxis of “consciousness-raising”, and the second, a celebration on what would have been Mark’s 50th birthday. 

In January 2019, we’d all listened to Jodi Dean talk about comradeship at the memorial lecture and planned an after-party for the event. This had been the hardest night to execute: capacities were low and the community forged through a shared reckoning with Mark’s loss and the impotent disaffection we worked collectively to tackle was dispersing. Folks had moved out of London, some by choice, some forced out. New approaches had to be brokered; new encouragements emerged. Our friend Geelia steered suggestions of who to ask, and despite the anxiety, we approached artists with managers for the first time, such as Ikonika, Cõvco and Klein. 

Having hauled camo netting up to the ceiling with the ever-lovely Ormside Projects owner Mike, the night was an explosive success. We shoved drink tickets into the hands of the DJs as a way of showing our appreciation in the guilty knowledge of being unable to pay them what they deserved. Archie dedicated his opening performance to another much-missed friend, Zander Fletcher. It felt like something was really starting to happen in the midst of our revelry. There was a sense of reunion, as displaced friends trekked down to London to rekindle for the occasion. The nights were a celebration of Mark and his work, but increasingly, as we felt our networks stretch, we were celebrating Mark’s work being carried on through each other.

Jodi Dean speaking at the 2019 Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture at Goldsmiths College, Photo by Matt Colquhoun

Tongue-in-cheek scarves reading “Mark Fisher would have loved Cardi B” were sold at a fundraiser event in December 2019. We were tired of expensive club nights, accessibility being a central concern of ours from the beginning. Our budgets, pieced together from various bits of funding and glued together with some creative accounting, never could get us a venue big enough for everyone, nor able to pay everyone what they deserved. But we were determined to keep the January events free.

Following this, the January 2020 event took place at Goldsmiths Students Union. On Instagram, snarky academic-types said the queue was “full of teenagers googling ‘who is Mark Fisher?’” However, this look-down-the-nose attitude was exactly what we aimed to dispose of. We didn’t know who Mark Fisher was when we took his class. We simply met him, and each other, in that serendipitous way through which encounters happen. Engaging with Mark and his thoughts feels exciting. Nursing more than just a hangover, new futures for political or philosophical thought are brought into being. As Robin Mackay says:

“Mark’s own reference points were as unique as he was. By some he was accused of overintellectualising what was only entertainment; by others of dumbing down the theorists whose work he remixed effortlessly, entertainingly, inventively, with references drawn from pop culture. But for Mark this wasn’t some kind of intellectual game: he used to say, I can’t help it: I can only think through popular culture. […] In this sense, it could be said that Mark transformed the traditional working-class virtue of ‘knowing your place’ into an adamant, defiant methodology. He knew where he came from and he demonstrated incontrovertibly that that place mattered.”

18 January 2019 @ Ormside Projects

We all congregated for that third annual For k-punk, where we sleeplessly carried on the joy of dancing, talking and being together through to the cusp of the weekend, friends folded over into each other in a living room off the New Cross Road, stuffed onto sofas, windows steaming up from the inside. Warmth extending beyond the coaches and trains boarded homewards, returning to work and our own individual lives, the promise of another reunion was made. 

In Newcastle, Archie Smith and Kitty McKay had been walking, a testament to Mark and Justin Barton’s exploration of the eerie along East Anglian coastlines, On Vanishing Land. INCURSIONS was a project formed around many of our experiences of k-punk’s hauntology and pop modernism, and our own journeys along the River Tyne attempting to locate weird and eerie liminalities at the edges of the city. In line with For k-punk’s ethos as an experimental, energetic and active space for new collective subjectivities, existing beyond the library, lecture theatre or dance floor, the project gathered people and perspectives, merging psychogeography with the social.

INCURSIONS became an open invitation. Sometimes friends, converging from all over the country, sleeping on couches, on our floor, would arrive; sometimes total strangers would attend, having seen a poster plastered on the wall of a local pub, expecting a historical guided tour of the city. Initially uncomfortable about spending an afternoon walking in the cold with two nervous artists, these encounters gave way to sharing social and personal histories; our voices present with theirs, digging away neoliberal topographies, conjuring something out of nothing. 

INCURSIONS February 2020 walk, photo by Natasha Eves

When walking with others became unsafe, we adopted the same DIY resourcefulness we’d learnt from the community that emerged around Goldsmiths, channelling the rough-and-ready nature of For k-punk. INCURSIONS reached out to people and projects online, new encounters coincided with new technologies and the invitation remained open. We produced radio broadcasts for a public made up of friends, other artists and musicians, locals of Newcastle, collaborators and people we’ve yet to meet: part archive, part scrapbook, linking up disparate coordinates of postcapitalist desire. When space couldn’t be inhabited, we found other ways to share time. 

Rising to the challenge, this year’s For k-punk has moved online too. Curated by Natasha Eves and Matt Colquhoun and commissioned by the ICA, five artists and musicians will respond to Mark’s Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures, recently published by Repeater Books. Tim Lawrence, Time is Away, Oneohtrix Point Never, Iceboy Violet and INCURSIONS will each contribute a new mix or piece of music, with visuals by Sweatmother. The event will be captioned. We look forward to you joining us. 

For k-punk will take place at the ICA’s Cinema 3 platform from 10pm Saturday 30 January. The event will be free to access worldwide until 3am GMT Monday 1 February. Tickets are available on the ICA’s official website. 

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