The Black Hole (1988-1994) was a legendary club in Budapest in Golgota street. It was the first place in the country to gather underground subcultures, and its history is linked with the political changes of 1989. We had a chat with Ferenc Hammer, the chair of the Media and Communication department at ELTE about young people, politics, punk and H&M’s Ramones t-shirts. INTERVIEW BY PANNI PUSKÁS.
Revizor: In 2018 Kiscelli Museuem had an exhibition about the Black Hole. Did you go?
Ferenc Hammer: No. I saw many pictures and reviews about it, and truth be told, I didn’t feel like going. Exhibitions like that often give me the impression of a class reunion, with everyone bringing their old photos – it is not clear why they choose to pick up a topic, and why now.
R: The history of the Black Hole lasted from 1988 to 1994. This coincides with the political transition. What is the relationship of the two?
Ferenc Hammer and the Lopunk punk group
FH: The pop culture subcultures of the day were in many ways classified based on their conformity with culture. That way you could place each subcultural environment on a scale: on one end there was, let us say, disco, on the other end there was experimental theatre. Another dimension of classification was the political activity of the given subculture. Latin dance clubs were in my view not very political, folk dance movements more so, and the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde artists were scrutinized by the police. If we juxtapose these two dimensions, politics and non-conformity, in the intersection we find the Black Hole – quite non-conform and quite political. The political nature was solely derived from the presence of prole punks in those days – the first big wave of Hungarian punk music back then – they seceded from the uptown, college educated underground movement. The audience of Kontroll csoport and Európa kiadó were mainly members of the intelligentsia, as opposed to the audience of the CPg band. In the eighties these raucous punk kids were routinely beaten up and incarcerated, but by the end of the eighties their behaviour was less and less sanctioned. The Black Hole could not have been opened in 1981, the police would have picked up everyone the first night, but this was no longer the case in 1988.
R: The Black Hole was a gathering point of opposition subcultural groupings. But what sort of opposition could one belong to in those days? What is the object of rebellion for a young person in the political transition period?
FH: A chapter of Anna Szemere’s book, Up From the Underground is precisely about that. What does the avant-garde or underground pop culture existing up to that point do with itself, once the communists close shop in 1989-1990? Some are able to reinvent themselves, some are still licking their wounds. But I think there is a continuity in the history of punk subculture that is not cut in half by the shift in power; punk is not a rebellion against the communist police state only, it confronts normality. Its enemy is not communism, but dim people. And this resulted in leftist thinking and the critique of consumerism. In this regard punks represented the same point of view as the neo-avant-garde artists: the issue for both groups was to create something that is guaranteed to make no sense. In Hungary this triggered the secret police, whatever they could not make sense of was deemed a doubtless conspiracy.
R: At the same time punk is also an anticapitalistic subculture, is it not?
Black Hole. @Tamás Urbán, Fortepan
FH: People in Hungary at that time hadn’t the faintest about capitalism. There was the Répa Festival in the Petőfi Hall, to which the organizers invited the best underground bands, everybody came from Miladojka to The Ex. Around 1988 Billy Bragg came too, and on the stage he went on about how cool it was to be here, because Margaret Thatcher is a fascist oppressor, but now he finally had the opportunity to come to a country ruled by the people. Not many people understood him, thank God. But those who did threw things at him.
R: At the exhibition of the Kiscelli Museum it was interesting to see the documentary of Gábor Dettre about the gothic subculture (Tomorrow is Cancelled for the Lack of Interest, 1993). The topic of self-harm and suicide come up as a subcultural trend. I felt a strong generational disillusionment, while the generation of the parents were looking hopefully towards the future. What is this tension about?
FH: Teenager subcultures are always the negative images of mainstream pop culture. From this perspective they are really simple: they are about enraging grownups as much as possible. It is of course a difficult methodology to follow for the nasty thirteen-year-olds, because the world of the adults changes, too. Old hippies were not easy to shock with drinking, teenagers had to come up with something new instead. Our generation – I was born in 1963 – kissed, for instance. I don’t think anybody before us or since kissed quite so much in public. It was awesome, you could reap the most condemning looks with ten minutes of kissing on the bus. Ten years later you couldn’t shock anybody with that, so teens started cutting themselves. Then came lesbian and gay young people, because plain sex was not enough to enrage the boomers. Today’s teenagers – as a gang bang does not make someone in their thirties or forties blow a fuse – rebel by not having sex, or start infuriatingly not to rebel. Of course, most kids grow up and change suits – what’s important is who carries marks of this period later on. This is strongly determined by society, because as we climb higher on the social ladder, the subculture becomes more of a game, a self-realization, the participant becomes less committed.
R: We don’t see subcultural ecosystems anymore. Why do you think that is?
FH: A subculture provides a routine day and night. It is at the same time an ethos, a form of entertainment, a consumption pattern. And with time it began to seem more and more like a question of self-styling. If you are a proper metalhead, you are a metalhead at two a. m., even when you are woken from your sleep. You sleep like a metalhead, you eat like a metalhead, you drink like a metalhead. Today, anyone can go into H&M to buy a Ramones t-shirt. One September the freshmen arrived, and I thought some Ramones fan club started at the faculty, because everyone was dressed like that. But, of course, these students had no idea what they dressed up as. So today we are talking about scenes – according to cultural research – but this does not mean that old subcultures were replaced by a fancy dress ball, it is merely a matter of shifting emphasis.
R: What is your most memorable experience from the Black Hole?
HF: I remember not remembering much. Or as the lead singer of Motörhead, Lemmy said: if you claim to remember, you probably weren’t even there. But yes, maybe one thing: the toilet there was so horrifying, it was almost baroquesque, I haven’t seen anything like it since.
Translated by Péter Papolczy