Teknival: La Fête Libre?
In 2015, my sociologist housemate from Lyon and I atteneded "Teknival du Premier Mai" one of the last remaining large-scale gatherings of the Free Party movement in France. With an ideology rooted in individual freedom, anticonsumerism and antiestablishmenarianism, the movement is gradually being stamped out by the authorites and depicted as a enclave for drugs, violence and even terrorism.
Our documentary, "Teknival: La Fête Libre?" and accompanying article looks deeper inside the emblematic gathering of a dying subculture and examins how and in what form the Free Party movement exists today, under the shadow of repressive authorities.
Originating in England, underground “free parties” that take place on abandoned and outdoor sites arrived in France at the end of the 1980s. These illegal events developed considerably over the following decade due to the extensive suppression of raves, or legal Tekno parties. Banning official events entails entrenchment in the illegal, however these free gatherings are in turn subjected to police repression. They are thus beginning to become politicised and codified and, little by little, we are seeing the emergence of state-controlled and -monitored events.
Free parties still exist here and there. They struggle to get off the ground but the movements endure and manage to produce small, free events. They remain, however, small-scale and do not live up to the parties of the past. The era of large, free gatherings is well and truly over but its spirit has not been buried with it. Certain events have managed to survive, albeit with great difficulty. Most notably Teknival, which is held on the 1st May and constitutes the emblematic gathering of the free movement. This movement has also followed the shift toward formalisation, calling into question its alliance to free culture. In May 2015, Teknival took place in a decommissioned military airport near Cambrai in northern France.
We attended this year’s event with the aim of capturing moments, images and personal accounts. The idea was, above all, to experience this little-known event from the inside. Indeed, when Teknival does elicit discussion it is mostly negative, by means of the media who do not hesitate to sully its image: it is often reduced to a drug supermarket or a lawless enclave. The reality, however, could not be further from this perception. “Teknival: The Free Party?” is intended to be a response to the repeated charges brought against these events, which are primarily places of creation, encounters and collective emancipation.
To understand its essence we must first take in our surroundings. The sound systems at Teknival are distributed on each side of the airport’s runway, about thirty walls of sound of varying sizes that each produce their own music. A large variety of musical genres are represented: drum ‘n’ bass, trance, hardtek, hardcore, tribe, jungle, etc. Some of the collectives, often the biggest, draw in the crowd by positioning themselves at the centre of the site or the end of the runway. Others prefer to offset themselves, seeking privacy rather than the masses. It takes several minutes to go from one end of the site to the other. Some people even employ the use of transport to move around: among them, bicycles, motorcycles, mini tractors, shopping carts and other wacky constructions that are difficult to label.
The crowd is heterogeneous. People come from all backgrounds, breaking the old cliché that fans of Tekno all look alike. Free parties are sometimes considered a movement, but they are not characterised by homogeneity. They are certainly not supported by a single voice but by a multitude. It is simply a melting pot of Tekno, music, party and freedom lovers. Even if free parties actually do have their own codes and rituals, even if they can be seen as akin to a subculture, as anthropology has been able to demonstrate (Pourtaud, 2009), Teknival’s attendees do not necessarily represent this. A hard core is found in certain mores that stem from the marginal tradition of free culture: advocating self-management, attaching oneself to an almost anarchical ideology and identifying to some degree with nomadism. But this does not represent a whole - one could even say that there is a certain social diversity within the event. Even without the aid of figures and statistics, it is plain to see that not everyone comes from the same background: just as many have jobs, an apartment and a family as those who navigate between the street and shelters.
Social engagement holds a special place at the centre of this unity. Despite the lack of uniformity among the population we find common claims and messages that spring from the mass. Tekno fans are not just here to party, they defend their vision of society. These messages are first relayed by small groups who have been involved in the free movement for many years. But there is another, more discreet form of protest - a debate that is almost hesistant because it is unsure of itself. It is neither borne of ideology or political origin, nor is it based on any organisation. Its messages, however, are clear and often unanimous. The event is characterised by strong humanistic and community values and rejects all forms of order, rules and any form of profit. It constitutes a libertarian and anti-consumerist ideology that promotes cohabitation and the respect for differences and that of nature too. “Tekno is a state of mind, it is a philosophy.”
Yet this culture is also one of chronic individualism. Teknival is also about the desire to be alone with oneself, to think about oneself and behave as one feels in the image of the rational individual who only thinks about his or her own advantages. This is indicative of declining membership to groups and the emergence of individuals that are both members and actors of society. This goes with mass consumption, be it beverages, food or drugs. Indeed, people are in search of everything and lack nothing. They find and consume what they need, when they need it. Drugs, for one thing, are plentiful. There is a conspicuous presence of dealers in the open, for all to see, selling their “products”, akin to boisterous vendors at market. But it is really no worse than in clubs or at parties. Here, however, it is accepted (Tessier, 2003). Product consumption is part of the celebration. It is part of losing control and seeking performance, of the will to excel. Drugs form an apt analogy for what Teknival represents: something between individualism, where everyone seeks introspection, and a thirst for collectivity and community.
It goes without saying that attending Teknival is about, above all, letting off steam and escaping the everyday that is filled with stress, fear and rules. The desire for freedom is, of course, the core element of the gathering. “It's the only place where I can express myself without fearing the law.” And indeed, this freedom is constrained by the transformation of the event’s nature. Every year Teknival reaches the echelon of the Ministry of the Interior and it is the minister himself who waves the magic wand, allowing the event to take place each year. It is a veritable state affair, sparking the apprehension of local councillors who profess their desire to maintain public order. The decision to formalise Teknival dates back to 2002-2003 following the emergence of several factors. Firstly, the state no longer controlled the situation and did not possess the means to maintain order because the phenomenon was increasing substantially in size - some events drew crowds of tens of thousands of people. Moreover, the health risks became too great (Lafargue Grangeneuve, 2010). Finally, the state realised that banning these events made no difference, especially because the ravers of the time were taking on a hard-line attitude. They did not wish to make concessions (Vix, 2004) and the events took place, regardless of the punishment imposed. Rendering them legal was a means to better control them.
In parallel with the policy of legalising Tekno parties, an approach called “risk reduction” was developed. More than an approach, it is a philosophy driven by public health associations, notably the Médecins du Monde. Tightly hinged on preventative actions, their objective is to minimise the risks related to practices taking place within Tekno parties, predominantly drug use. The objective of this intervention is to provide an on-site presence of social and medical staff, to educate and to provide secure and adequate equipment.
State intervention emerged within a specific context where movements advocated self-management and where there was no apparent organisation. The situation, however, has significantly changed for several reasons. On the one hand, risk reduction policies have become widespread with the emergence of several associations that are present at the vast majority of events, legal or illegal. On the other hand, the free milieu has experienced something akin to a split between those who accept state intervention, thus characterised as collaborators, and those demanding total independence, who turn to small, illegal events (Vix, 2004). Teknival today only hosts a population that has accepted this collaboration, those who are willing to negotiate and make concessions. Several regionally- and nationally-organised collectives and associations are at the helm. They are the ones who ensure that the event occurs, at the expense of drawn-out negotiations with the authorities. These “sound system” members have become professional and politicised (Pourtau, 2006) and are now a far cry from the crude management style of early Tekno.
But even today, state intervention resembles more subjugation than support, more repression than an outstretched hand. An anecdote may attest to this: Teknival is better known within the Ministry of the Interior than the Ministry of Culture (Lafargue de Grangeneuve, 2010), whereas the management of today’s Teknival is anything but chaotic. The state leaves little room for these initiatives. It controls, disempowers and infantilises Tekno lovers. This culture is still stigmatised and marginalised and remains associated with deviant practices, as were many musical trends well before it.
This movement still exists. It is a paradox in itself since it is the articulation of individual empowerment and collective power. It guarantees individual liberty and free enterprise while remaining committed to the interests of the collective and of cohabitation. It demonstrates that rational individuals are not necessarily at odds with these values, that a group of heterogeneous individuals can create a homogeneous whole. And it shows us, finally, that despite the repressive actions of the state, despite the lack of recognition of Tekno as a musical genre and an artistic practice, the gathering still takes place. It is an indicator of the strength that a set of individuals represents, regardless of the power and legitimacy attributed to them.
When we ask ourselves if Teknival is still a free party, the question is not about whether the organisation is still underground, unlawful and independent since, evidently, it is no longer. The question is whether, despite the decline of the collective and the advent of an individualistic era, despite the increased control of the event by the state, the values of Tekno can still exist. The question is whether Tekno lovers still have the power and leverage to act and to promote their ideology. We would like to call into question the degree of incertitude of these events, to understand whether the actors retain, despite the evolution of society and despite a constrained context, room to manoeuver and the capacity to act that allow Teknival to remain a free party.
“Teknival: The Free Party?” aims to initiate this debate. It is not intended as a comprehensive resource on the thematic of free parties or the state’s management of culture. On the contrary, the ambition of this short film is simply to showcase an event and its points of view, as subjective as they are. This project aims, above all, to let those be heard who are seldom granted the opportunity yet have so much to say.
Article by Leonard Carolyne
Translated by Jeremy Daly
Dupouy, S., “Rôle de la symbolique contestataire dans l'agrégation d'une culture jeune. Le cas des free-parties”, Sociétés, 4:90, 2005.
Lafargue de Grangeneuve, L., L’Etat face aux rave-parties. Les enjeux politiques du mouvement techno. Toulouse, Presse universitaire du Mirail, 2010.
Pourtau, L., “Les Membres de Sound System techno : du militantisme à la professionnalisation”, Volume !, 5:1, 2006.
Pourtau, L., Techno. Voyage au cœur des nouvelles communautés festives, Paris, éd. du CNRS, 2009.
Tessier Laurent, “Musiques et fêtes techno : l'exception franco-britannique des free parties.”, Revue française de sociologie 1:44, 2003.
Vix, C., “Fêtes libres ? Une histoire du mouvement techno en France (1989-2004)”, Vacarme 3:28, 2004.