Unstructured forward motion: an interview with Emma Warren
“I didn’t intend to write this at all. It just happened. I told somebody I was doing it quite early on and they said, ‘I don’t know if there’s a book in it’. They obviously hadn’t thought about it as much as I have.”
In truth, it’s likely that many people familiar with Total Refreshment Centre haven’t considered its roots, life and legacy in the same way Warren has. Over 18 months, the journalist and broadcaster conducted dozens of interviews and scoured the archives to capture the cultural history, musical heritage and grassroots community energy of the outwardly unassuming Stoke Newington space.
For six vibrant, if uneven, years between 2012 and 2018, TRC blossomed into a crucial node in the cultural ecosystem of London’s underground music scene. Founded following Alexis Blondin’s response to a prescient Gumtree advert entitled ‘Would Suit Music School’, TRC soon began to provide high-calibre events and crucial support for the experimental fringes of musical London at a time when many nights had become increasingly unaffordable, co-opted by larger, profit-motivated rivals, or starved of the oxygen necessary to grow due to the shuttering of accessible, supportive venues.
Warren’s story paints an honest picture of the ‘unstructured forward motion’ of TRC’s early years, not without their own problems, referring to a general lack of proper building works and a loose though passionate and well-intentioned management style. It seems, however, that this improvisatory spirit is exactly where the magic came from.
Deftly blending historical research, personal memoir, ethnomusicological case study and cultural manifesto, Make Some Space: Tuning In To Total Refreshment Centre succeeds not only in telling the story of this much-loved musical refuge, but also in making the case for protecting culturally valuable spaces like it – spaces where, given the right ingredients, interesting things happen.
In the end, TRC was led to end its regular, public events. Now Warren, adopting the same suck-it-and-see approach that characterised the venue’s development, has documented the story.
“When I came to TRC and accidentally started writing about it, it just became really clear to me that culture needs physical space in which to germinate” Warren tells me, sitting in the brutalist foyer of the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. It’s this idea, this mutual relationship between site and situation, that forms the central backbone of the book, published via Warren’s own imprint Sweet Machine alongside a series of ‘How To Document Your Culture’ workshops.
“Where have all our spaces gone? And who is going to restore them to us? Because we need them.”
Yet, in a political and cultural environment where value is legitimated mainly in financial terms and return on investment, places to access and share this truly grassroots, independent creativity are increasingly harder to come by, something Warren readily acknowledges. “Where have all our spaces gone? And who is going to restore them to us? Because we need them.”
This is, of course, just one chapter in a continuing narrative: “TRC is really the prism through which we’re talking about this, we could be talking about lots of other places as well.” Clearly, the book comes at a crucial time, reflecting the wider context of cherished venue after venue shuttering due to the rising costs of business rates, the creeping spectre of hyper-gentrification, and the brutal knock-on effect this has on a sense of communitarian belonging.
We aren’t just talking about physical spaces, either. The BBC’s recent decision to drastically cut back the airtime of crucible of experimental music, Late Junction, came just weeks before the announcement that Red Bull Media Academy and long-running music discovery site Drowned In Sound would also be winding up operations. Likewise, the independent, artist-led Berlin Community Radio was forced to close down earlier in the year due to a lack of funding.
All of these were vital cultural platforms of learning, networking and expression. Though not made with bricks and mortar, they were nevertheless built by communities expressing enthusiasm and belief in the necessity of experimental musical forms, and collective means of communicating them. “There’s also a kind of psychological element to it,” Warren adds. “We need to make space in our minds, in our conception of what is possible. We need places to gather and we need to find like-minded people and that needs to be carved out in a range of ways.”
The late critic and cultural theorist Mark Fisher argued for something similar, something that many people understand, perhaps without fully recognising it. The collective, carefree moments we experience at places like TRC might in fact represent something much more profound – a collectively imagined alternative to the hyper-exploitative paradigm of neoliberal ‘capitalist realism’, and all of its attendant social and psychological implications.
Make Some Space is littered with these recognitions, that TRC represented so much more than the physical space it provided. Interviewees throughout the book attest to its power in embodying an essential alternative to the busy, brutal individualism of London, of providing a space where they could create and share music without worrying about its financial value.
Is this a political book, then? Of course it is. “We’re talking about the difference between what we need and what is available to us.” It’s clear that none of this can be removed from the context of a decade lost to austerity, of funding cuts to local government and the disproportionate effect this has had on the arts. More widely, it reflects the decades-long dissolution of a shared, societal conception of placing emotional and cultural value on communal spaces.
This sense of collective ownership, the idea that the ability to create culture should belong to us instead of being denied to us, is made repeatedly clear by Warren - she deploys the term ‘cultural salvage’ a number of times to make this point, referring to the way we create culture by making use of what we have at our fingertips.
“That’s quite human isn’t it? To make a mark, to have existed. To have added something.”
This was especially the case during the early days of TRC, as Blondin and a rotating cast of musicians, sound engineers, film-makers, poets and more made use with the little they had, materially and financially, as a vaguely-defined but dynamic cultural scene emerged. “I think it comes back to the idea that we’re going to have to do a lot of this work ourselves, because the structures which previously did this stuff for us don’t really exist anymore. Really, if we want to do it, it’s kind of on us.”
In the end, it’s these crucial, imperfect, human situations that allow for genuine cultural stories to take root. “A lot of people talked about that unfinished quality making them feel like they could join in”, Warren says of TRC. “If something’s unfinished, then there’s room to add a little thing. And that’s quite human isn’t it? To make a mark, to have existed. To have added something.”
There’s another concept that Warren employs throughout the book, which perfectly encapsulates the communal dynamic of what TRC represented, and why it’s so important to preserve spaces like it. The term ‘musicking’ was conceived by musician and educator Christopher Small, referring to the nature of music as a process rather than a product, and one that reflects a collective ecosystem of actors, from the musicians themselves to the bar staff, the tech crew, the promoters and the people working on the door.
Like Fisher, Small emphasised the importance of this concept for making real an alternative kind of society, where relationships are established between participants that model ideal relations between person and person, individual and society. Warren lights up when we move onto Small’s ideas. “He wrote it for us didn’t he! I’m not an academic. I’m not an ethnomusicologist. But when somebody first gave this word to me, I had a lightbulb moment, like ‘oh this is what I’ve been doing all the time - fantastic! I have a name for it!’”
“Just tell the story how it needs to be told.”
This process of naming things, of cementing and owning your own narratives, is crucial to Sweet Machine - the new publishing imprint Warren hopes will provide a platform for people to tell their own stories, and for these stories to be as accessible as possible to the public – “little things you can stick in your back pocket, read on the bus in one sitting, that could become the beginning of something else.” Reflecting this, Warren’s also written a new pamphlet in collaboration with Rough Trade Books, locating the same kind of energy and contingent magic in the emergence of Deptford’s much-loved weekly jam, Steam Down.
This improvisatory, independent spirit that’s so crucial to the cultural flowering of spaces like TRC and Steam Down will be at the heart of Sweet Machine, too. “I want to encourage people to not do it properly, just to do a thing because they want to. Just tell the story how it needs to be told.”
Alongside Make Some Space, Warren is also running a series of ‘How To Document Your Culture’ workshops, rooting the vital themes of the book into practical outreach and engagement for young people. “It’s about saying to people ‘your stories matter’. Holding your cultural stories close and knowing how to talk about them is really valuable.”
All of this – Sweet Machine, the workshops, and the cobbled-together, accidental, and fiercely independent process of the book’s development – so neatly complements the story of TRC and the multidirectional momentum crucial to places like it. With Make Some Space, Warren’s touch is to make the medium the message, encouraging us all to protect and document what we deem to be culturally valuable.
“I like the idea of the telling mirroring the thing. It is like the story. It’s unfinished and imperfect, it was done in the gaps between other jobs. It’s totally DIY.”