Welcome to Imaginary Club« Koji Narumi
Fight Club is a film directed by David Fincher based on a novel of the same title by Chuck Palahniuk. It tells of a subculture where men engage in bare-knuckle fighting. Sworn to secrecy and initiated by fighting an opponent on their first visit, the club members follow a strict set of rules when they meet in dimly lit cellars to bare chests, lock fists, and spill blood.
Their fighting is not a competition of strength, nor is it designed to exorcise some pent-up evil. For them, violence is a way of bonding and rediscovering their masculinity. After exchanging blow upon blow, they praise each other’s efforts and embrace. These men are engaging in a physical performance to release the wilder instincts suppressed by society and thereby reaffirm their identity.
Fight Club is fiction, and Imaginary Club, as the name itself suggests, is likewise a club founded on fantasy. In Germany and Japan, America and Denmark, Sweden and China, Holland and Britain, Canada and France, Oliver Sieber ranges through city, suburb, and countryside, photographing the characteristic scenes and the young subculture adherents who gather in local clubs. Transcending divisions of age, gender, and race, these young people belong to a confusing assortment of tribes, from punk and heavy metal to fetish, Goth, Lolita—and even Gothic Lolita. The array of fashions they sport is equally complex and disparate: tattoos and piercings, quiffs and mohawks, leather jackets and frocks. Nevertheless, as a whole, they present a curious consistency, so that the overall effect is of a record in portraits of the people who have gathered at a club somewhere on the same evening.
Sieber’s subcultural images are not like other documentary-style photographs of young people in the underground scene, nor do they resemble the snapshots from the street that we see in magazines and blogs. In conventional documentaries, the young people are highly conscious of the camera, often glaring into the lens or strutting in fixed poses. By doing so, they act out a stereotype of their subculture. Sieber’s young people may clothe their bodies in extravagant styles, but, with their gazes fixed on some faraway point, they radiate stillness, even gentleness. The images seem to capture a moment when they suddenly return to themselves in the midst of performing a fixed role.
A subculture is a community built around identity. It is not simply a collection of dropouts and deviants, but a network of comrades seeking an alternative identity to the mainstream through shared aesthetics, ideas, tastes, and forms of behaviour. They achieve this identity through mutual validation, using their physical bodies to create an “ideal self.”
Despite being of different races and nationalities and photographed in different locations, Sieber’s young people are surprisingly similar. There are Gothic Lolitas in Los Angeles, visual kei stylists in Bonn, rockabillies in Osaka, and punk girls in Beijing. As a result of the global spread of popular culture, young people all over the world now share the same subcultural styles.
In these images, the subject’s gaze is always directed obliquely beyond the frame; at what, we can only guess. There is a term used in moviemaking: the “imaginary line,” also known as the “axis of action.” This line passes through the two main characters in a scene, defining their spacial relations as being camera left or camera right. To avoid disorienting the audience, the camera never crosses this imagined line, thus ensuring that in closeups each character in a dialogue looks in the proper direction, toward the other. When the closeups are shown in sequence, the editing process achieves its effect: the two characters appear to be face-to-face as they talk. In reality, the two actors may be performing in separate takes, even on different days.
Likewise, the young people in Imaginary Club, separated in time and space, may or may not actually be looking at the subcultural comrades around them. Nevertheless, as they display their costumes on a night of music and dancing, via Sieber’s camera they send out worldwide messages of friendship and solidarity. Koji Narumi