Alternative culture: hands-on and proud
French existentialists, hippies, hip-hop emcees, graffiti artists, punks. Although these alternative cultures each represented a minority in their respective heydays, their effects on society are clear. Alternative cultures have taken on many different ideals, structures, and memberships over time and continue to leave marks on contemporary life.
Alternative cultures are so called because they provide alternatives to popular or mainstream culture. They form when a society isn’t able to provide for the needs and desires of all of its people. “In the late ’90s there was no consistent venue for punk-hardcore-indie shows,” said Mike “Q” Roth, one of the creators of the Mr. Roboto Project, an important part of alternative culture in Pittsburgh.
“They’ll never be on MTV, but they sure as hell wouldn’t want to be.”
The Mr. Roboto Project, a small storefront in nearby Wilkinsburg, is a venue used mainly for musical performances. Roboto primarily hosts punk and hardcore bands, although members of the project are welcome to use space for any category of event or performance.
Since its creation in 1999, Roboto has been a home to alternative music culture. The idea arose from the need for legitimate venues to accommodate non-mainstream bands. “Back when Roboto was first being created, if you wanted to do a show at a big space you had to go through a professional promoter and agents and all that stuff,” said Jennifer Briselli, the secretary and public relations representative of Roboto’s board of directors. “The only other option was a basement show at some punk house.”
Pre-Roboto, small bands playing music drastically different from Top 40 pop were forced to perform illegally at basement shows, if at all. The Mr. Roboto Project provides an alternative to the bureaucracy of larger corporation-driven venues as well as the unreliability of house shows. “This way we’re legit but still do it our way. You don’t have to worry about getting shut down by the police,” Briselli said.
Among the core values of the Mr. Roboto Project are “community involvement” and “democratic control,” Roth explained. Thus, Roboto is run as a cooperative. Members buy an initial $15 share in the organization and pay a $10 membership fee every year. Membership comes with discounted ticket prices for shows at Roboto and the freedom to rent the space for concerts or as practice space. “In general, the direction the space takes is up to the membership,” said Briselli. Members can vote on issues at monthly meetings and annually vote to elect the board of directors.
Roboto’s do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality can be attributed in part to the DIY imperative of the ’70s and ’80s punk movement. A proactive approach encouraged artists to create their own record labels and venues; it also provided an escape from the control of mainstream influences. “In our society we are taught to be passive consumers of just about everything,” Roth said. “For us, Roboto is one way of ... taking back control of our music scene.”
The Mr. Roboto Project provides an alternative to commercialized music and commercialized venues. “They’ll never be on MTV, but they sure as hell wouldn’t want to be,” said Briselli. “If the community loses interest, then we cease to serve a real function.” With stable funds, a strong membership, and even tentative plans for expansion, the success of the Mr. Roboto Project reflects its significance in Pittsburgh.
“We’re nicer than the people that work at Borders.”
Like Roboto, The Big Idea Infoshop provides a space for alternative media. Instead of music, The Big Idea focuses on radical literature, both in books and in magazines. It started out selling books by tabling at festivals and events, including shows at the Mr. Roboto Project. The Big Idea now operates out of a store in Bloomfield — about a 10-minute bus ride from campus.
Ever since its inception in 2001, The Big Idea has been the only store of its kind able to succeed in Pittsburgh. “There was a huge need for something like this: a radical bookstore venue for getting out these ideas,” said Nathan Iverson, a volunteer and financial coordinator at The Big Idea. “We provide a lot of access to independent publishers, to local writers, and a lot of radical thought that doesn’t get any shelf space anywhere else.”
In the store, you can find anarchist literature, queer literature, and books on environmental and labor issues that aren’t sold at any chain bookstores. “I kind of see it as a safe place for people to come and explore some ideas that they wouldn’t get exposed to in other bookstores that are around, especially in Pittsburgh,” said Marisa Manheim, another volunteer.
The Big Idea has managed to keep its doors open despite the challenge of maintaining a business that is both independent and radical. “There was a store in South Side that carried a lot of queer authors and that closed down a couple years ago,” Iverson said. In the face of huge booksellers, The Big Idea is able to survive because of its alternative business ethics. In a pamphlet available in the store, The Big Idea defines its business practices as following an “anarchist model.” The pamphlet defines the cooperative as “a working example of an alternative to capitalism, the hierarchical workplace, and wage labor.” The store is run entirely by unpaid volunteers, and all profits generated are used to maintain the space and buy books.
As with Roboto, The Big Idea involves all volunteers in decisions concerning everything from day-to-day operation to placing orders. Volunteers don’t pay for memberships; instead, they contribute their time and ideas. “We actively try to make everyone involved a decision-maker in the process,” Iverson said. “We’re nicer than the people that work at Borders.”
“The more free things, the better.”
Free Ride is another organization that follows the philosophy of the Mr. Roboto Project. Its primary location is now at Construction Junction in Point Breeze, a mecca for home improvement DIY-ers in search of recycled building supplies. According to its mission statement, Free Ride aims to “enhance the health of our community and environment by promoting active living and encouraging bicycle transportation.” The pro-bicycling organization is, like The Big Idea, non-profit and run largely by volunteers (although there are a few paid employees).
Free Ride also follows a DIY ideology: volunteer mechanics teach people how to repair or even build their own bikes. Instead of paying for these services, those helped are asked to contribute to Free Ride by doing some volunteering of their own. “The time volunteered is typically used dismantling the donated bikes that we don’t want to circulate parts around the shop,” said Free Ride volunteer Elijah Matheny.
Free Ride provides the Pittsburgh community with alternatives to fossil-fuel-burning transportation. “This is playing a larger and more important role in how a city is going to be able to function. Bicycling basically is non-polluting and we’re recycling bikes, so we don’t even support the industry that makes bikes,” Matheny said. Free Ride is helping to create a more environmentally sustainable city, despite the presence of vehicles that burn pollutants in today’s mainstream culture.
Free Ride is also an alternative to spending money on transportation. “The more free things, the better,” said Matheny. “People can have transportation for free and don’t have to drive in cars that are horribly destroying the earth. This allows people of all cultures and classes to have bikes.” In this sense, Free Ride is not only providing an alternative to motor vehicle transportation but also an alternative to capitalist consumerism by offering bikes and repairs free of charge.
“We want a bigger space and more freedom.”
In Pittsburgh, as in most metropolitan areas, opportunities to escape mainstream culture are available. Besides musical, literary, and transportation-based subcultures, Pittsburgh is also home to alternative cultures of vegetarians and vegans, independent media reporting, and centers of radical political thought that serve not only as alternatives but as platforms for resistance.
Motivated groups like the Mr. Roboto Project, The Big Idea Infoshop, and Free Ride proactively organize to fill the gaps left in society by popular culture. These groups provide more than just resources: They provide support. The Big Idea offers copies of Alexander Berkman’s ABCs of Anarchism, but what’s even more important is the community of people eager to discuss it. “We want a bigger space and more freedom,” Manheim said. “[Alternative culture] is being part of a group of people that are all interested in sharing this kind of experience.”