Jill Gasparina

Strange Love

Episode 1: DEVOTION

Released in theatres in November 2012, the last installment of the Twilight series once again demonstrated it: folklorizing, psychologising representations of fans continue to fill newspaper and news sites pages. A fan is an essentially hysterical, monstrous and alienated being, while Mark Chapman would be the perfect embodiment of a fan if he were a woman. These stereotypes generate a circular discourse in which the alleged denunciation of alienation or of mental pathology cultivates spite and ignorance. And it is only recently that what is called fandom, a subculture shared by a set of fans, has started to prick the interest of social scientists.1

Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams’ documentary Our Hobby is Depeche Mode is not strictly speaking an essay in sociology or anthropology. It is, however, inscribed in the tradition of British cultural studies (focused on popular arts, mass culture, sub-cultural identities), and could be considered as a case study devoted to Depeche Mode’s fandom. From this perspective, it is interesting to compare it with 101 (1989), Donn Alan Pennebaker’s famous (commissioned) film on the band’s 1988 Music for the Masses tour. The editing of 101 alternates scenes showing the members of DM and others focusing on a group of fans invited to follow several of the 101 gigs of the tour, after winning a promotional contest. Deller and Abrahams, for their part, never met the band members and solely focused on its fan base, which, from Mexico to California through Germany, Canada, Iran, Romania, Russia and England, continues to fervently worship the band.

Depeche Mode’s heyday largely belongs to the past. There is therefore something curious about the persistence of this incredible, globalised infatuation that even involves teenagers born well after their peak (late 1980s—early 1990s). The fans’ absolute devotion therefore forms one of the subtexts of the film, and finds a literal manifestation in the behaviour of Orlando (the first fan met during the shooting of the film): this young Californian built an altar in praise of Dave Gahan at his home, with votive candles and specific prayers (his mother explains that Gahan is god to him). In Mexico, the reception of the music is also focused on religious mythology (a theme the band carefully cultivates, from “Sacred” to “Black Celebration” through “Personal Jesus”). However, the most hardcore fans encountered in the film seem to be the Russian ones, such as Albert, a key figure on the Moscow scene, who sports a gigantic Dave Gahan tattoo covering his entire back.

One of Deller’s hypotheses is that the gravity of DM’s music resonates with a sense of the tragic that defines—at least partly—the Russian mindset, a theory shared by one fan, absorbed in the translation of one of the band’s songs. But the film also develops another and far more convincing approach: compared to rock music, considered as decadent, electronic music “is about the future,” Deller explains, “it suggests a new vision of the world, and that's what people behind the Iron Curtain seemed to crave before the collapse of communism.”2 Thus, for Albert as well as for other Russian fans in the film, this new music concurred with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a politicization that found an outlet in the creation of the “Depechist” movement (“like Communist, or like Fascist,” as one of them explains). Far from capitalizing on the figure of the adoring fan, the film is thus centered on the political significance of the Basildon band’s music may have had on Eastern Block youths as early as the 1980s, creating a yearning for a new world, and later embodying a newfound freedom.

If here the modes of reception of the band’s music are largely related to political history, the two directors are more generally interested in what fans make of the music. “We show all different kinds of fandom. From people who wear a T-shirt every day to people who just really like the band,”3 Deller explains: the film effectively documents a whole range of practices.

The title of the film comes from the German couple Claudia and Romy, whose “hobby is Depeche Mode”: they named their youngest son Dave, have dressed him up like Gahan since his youngest age, and spend their weekends recreating music videos of the band. Their whole family history, from how they met in high school, has been rewritten through the prism of their love for DM. The film also introduces an early fan from New York exhibiting the best specimens of his Depeche Mode tee-shirt collection (which comprises no less than 500 pieces), an Iranian immigrant in Canada recounting how the police would beat him up because of his leather jacket and (forbidden) records of the band, or a former homeless man from London describing how he found the will and the strength to change his life and go forward when attending one of the band’s concerts: “I was just looking for similar moments,” he explains simply.


“In capitalist societies,” writes historian and media theorist John Fiske, “popular culture is necessarily produced from the products of capitalism, for that is all the people have to work with. The relationship of popular culture to the culture industries is therefore complex and fascinating, sometimes conflictive, sometimes complicit or co-operative, but the people are never at the mercy of the industries—they choose to make some of their commodities into popular culture, but reject many more than they adopt. Fans are among the most discriminating and selective of all people and the cultural capital they produce is the most highly developed and visible of all.”4

In accordance with Fiske’s demonstration in this short passage, Deller and Abrahams approach fandom as a possible form of appropriation of mass culture, more precisely as a productive form of appropriation. “The people who have all the pristine DVDs, unopened, good for them, but we didn't put them in the film because they’re collectors, and their passion comes out in the fetishization of the product from the record company, whereas we were more interested in people who do things for themselves, who use it as a starting point and take it somewhere else. The people who won't like it are the ones who take [DM] as something written in stone,”5 explains Abrahams. Indeed, Our Hobby is Depeche Mode displays the range of productions made by these fans as a response to the music, or more precisely, if one refers to Brian Eno’s definition of pop (“Pop has nothing to do with making music, it’s about creating new imaginary worlds and inviting people to join them”6, as a response to the imaginary universe the name of Depeche Mode refers to: the film scrutinizes the forms and the degrees of (material, semiotic, social and self) productivity these fans take part in.7 At one end of the spectrum, fans imitate. At the other end, they invent, and invent themselves, building their identity through their love for the band, like Albert or Orlando (“Martin Gore’s lyrics speak about my life,” explains the latter).

This leads to the following list, randomly and in no particular order: listening to DM’s original music, dancing, perfectly mimicking Dave Gahan’s famous choreography, or the looks of different band members (at some points during the film, legions of Gore, Gahan and Fletcher clones seem to invade the streets), doing a capella, keyboard, guitar or brass-band cover versions, lip-synching, promoting parties, going to them and leaving one’s clothes there, making signs, posters, drawings, collages, badges, bootleg cassettes and records, translations, producing any possible form of fan art or fan fiction, getting a tattoo on one’s back, going for a pilgrimage in the significant places in the history of the band8, making new friends, collecting records and merchandising, and being ready to do anything to see the band’s gigantic shows, from selling one’s sound system to peddling soda pops, through managing to struggle out of extreme poverty. The film includes many testimonies by fans explaining how DM helped shape the person they are today. As further proof, Deller and Abrahams turn to the absolute authoritative figure, Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame), who evokes, like any other anonymous fan (he is soberly introduced by his first name), how DM’s music helped him to shape himself as a young man in a world that was reluctant to embrace a dissonant personality. DM is a shelter, the fans say. It is an imaginary site for self-production (a quite surprising fact for a band known to sing “People are basically the same”).

These sometime curious personal histories are not to be taken as mere anecdotes, for they show how cultural appropriation passes through forms of production. In a moving passage, German fans vividly recall Depeche Mode’s East Berlin show in March 1988. Before the Wall came down, as fans were quarantined from Western culture and its products, and as a consequence unable to have access to records and merchandise, they were forced to make their own albums (homemade cassettes from audio recordings), but also their own badges (from painted buttons). Thus, the clearest point made by the film is how fans, far from suffering from the assaults of marketing, know how to invent the media of their love and to fight the overflow of derived industrial products any mass-cultural phenomenon never fails to produce with (self-)produced, artisanal forms. The film thus stages a kind of symbolic and economic competition that is most clearly expressed by the way fan culture functions and develops. “Folk art will always give pop art a good run for its money,” Deller states, “also no one dresses it up as art, even though it's worthy of that title.”9


These remarks pertaining to sociology as well as to an analysis of cultural economy therefore also refer to the triangulation between mass culture, popular culture, and avant-garde10 that developed in the early modern era. In that respect, the film may be considered as a user’s manual for appropriation in the field of art. The visual exploration of this appropriation-oriented behaviour seems indeed to provide Deller with a way to reflect on his method as an artist.

The film contains two assertions. Deller underlines the closeness between his position as an artist and the fan’s (an individual who profoundly likes what s/he appropriates, who loves by appropriating and who appropriates because she loves).11 Besides, the British artist admits having a soft spot for Depeche Mode. Beyond the auxiliary issue of musical tastes, this means that Deller has incorporated into his conception of appropriation the need to consider the appropriated material as something other than a passive thing. Writing on the work of Louise Lawler, Isabelle Graw stresses the necessity to understand what, in the act of appropriation, is sparked by the appropriated material, and prefers to use the term “dedication” instead of the hackneyed “appropriation”. Artists allow “themselves to be overwhelmed by their material,”12 she writes, adding, “A person who appropriates an object is also faced with something that emanates or appears to emanate from that object.”13

This reminder is all the more crucial with regard to the chaos that surrounded the release of the film, as its commissioner Mute (DM’s label) eventually decided to forbid Deller and Abrahams from using the band’s music in their film in order to prevent its release. While the reasons for this last-minute reversal remain obscure, the film, that no one had yet seen, garnered a bad reputation (as it was said to offer a ridiculous and folkloric portrayal of the fans).14 And yet, no trace of condescension is to be found anywhere in the film: it offers instead a considerate depiction of this particular fandom, by accurately and sensitively highlighting the way lives may be turned upside down and fostered by the love of a band.

The second assertion concerns the legitimacy of Deller’s method (which consists in documenting or archiving folk art forms), insofar as it produces something instead of simply tapping into a profitable cultural source or taking advantage of the people he films or the subject he documents. “Appropriation: it's an art term,” Deller says. “I love what people make of their favourite group, the art they create, be it poems they write or banners with strange phrases they create, or parties they stage. I like it when people use a band as a starting point for something else. The end isn't simply passive consumption—buying the programme when you go to the stadium show, for instance.”15 By considering the gesture of appropriation as a potential “starting point for something else,” Deller proposes distinguishing two forms of appropriation; the first one simply consists in repeating the initial material (from lip-synching to dressing up as Martin Gore and doing dubious covers of “The Things You Said” on the keyboard), the second one in transforming it. The operation of producing one’s own cultural capital may therefore be more or less achieved—a feature the film accurately accounts for.

This distinction turns out to be extremely useful for addressing the dominant status of appropriation in contemporary art. Contemporary artists have become appropriation professionals. But this does not mean that they succeed better than the fans in getting over the stage of fascination with their sources (glittery portraits of punk stars that invaded galleries like an epidemic a decade ago, or more recently the omnipresence of installations based on seemingly never-opened books may even lead one to believe the opposite), nor manage to avoid issues of power and of social distinction effects that come with every discursive act of citation. “Appropriation,” far too vague a term, may now refer to very diverse strategies randomly consisting in “aggrandiz[ing one’s] own cultural pedigree”16 by summoning acknowledged, legitimate and culturally powerful sources, working on a subject one likes, trying to come to terms with an obsession, or attempting to get along with one’s faith.

If it is still possible to make a distinction between the fans’ and the artists’ appropriation practice, it lies more in the targets of the objects they produce (on one side themselves and their community, large or small, on the other the art world) than in the nature of their operations or in the quality of their productions. In order to distinguish an amateur form of cultural appropriation from a professional one, one should thus refer to organisational sociology analyses rather than to semiology, aesthetics, or poetics. This distinction would belong to the structure of cultural economy, it would stem from the subordinate place of folk arts, which freely generate cultural objects devoid of monetary value. Besides, Fiske, writing on fandom, uses the term “shadow economy”: “Fans create a fan culture with its own systems of production and distribution that forms what I shall call a ‘shadow cultural economy’ that lies outside that of the cultural industries yet share features with them which more normal popular culture lacks.”17 Conversely, art falls into the economy of cultural industries, and offers to its makers possibilities for professionalization.


In “Les vampires” (1923), Aragon tells how, in the middle of the World War, an entire generation of young male adolescents got mesmerized by actress Musidora’s dark hypnotism; “An entire generation built its worldview through the cinema, and can be summarized by one film, a serial. The youth fell in love with ‘Les vampires’ Musidora,”18 Aragon writes. He proceeds to movingly recall the “postcards of Musidora in a bathing suit, adorned with her large, brutal signature.”

Here, Aragon offers one of the first literary traces of fandom. His texts render manifest the way the love of a fan is relayed by a technological medium (the success of postcards being allowed by the democratization of photography—and, from the 1870s, of typogravure).19 This is enlightening in two ways. First, by allowing one to consider the fan’s involvement as the creation of a social relation with a technological product (in a similar although far earlier way as our strange relationships with electronic objects described by Dunne & Raby in Design Noir20. One could thus adapt Alfred Gell’s considerations on art works (“The immediate ‘other’ in a social relationship does not have to be another ‘human being’… Social agency can be exercised relative to ‘things’ and social agency can be exercised by ‘things’ (and also animals).”21) In the relation between fans and their idol, the latter is not necessarily a human being, and may well be a pop myth or an imaginary constellation instead; this relation is a love that is both mediatised and sparked by the encounter with various technological supports (an endlessly renewed confrontation in the case of a pop group with an ubiquitous media presence).

This leads us to our second point: as the nature of media evolves over time, we may rightfully admit that this passionate and productive consumption has evolved as production and diffusion technologies have been transformed. We may then ask ourselves: to what extent the nature of fans’ worship has been overturned by the growing democratization of the Internet? Deller and Abrahams explained they had approached fans through the band’s official website, by email. And Deller stated that he regarded amateur videos on YouTube as “a new form of folk art.”22 Nevertheless, the film bears no testimony of the existence of DM fans online practices.23

In truth, Our Hobby addresses a triumphant era in the history of mass culture that is perfectly embodied by DM’s titanic shows, up to the title of their famous album Music for the Masses. But even though the Basildon band continues to fill stadiums (they played at the Berlin Olympic stadium in 2009 in front of a crowd of 68,000), this era belongs to the past, for, as Boris Groys explains, mass consumption has now given way to mass artistic production.24

Yet Deller and Abrahams carefully avoid calling upon these representations of the masses, be they the consuming masses, the producing masses, or both. Never once does the film portray DM fans as a shapeless crowd; they are rather described as accumulated personalities whose individual productions are depicted in their uniqueness. Despite the global nature of the DM fan community, the film fails to comment on the massification of this subculture; a massification one finds obvious proof of in the creative industries’ major productions (In their final episodes, the Lost series or the Harry Potter films have thus incorporated farewell scenes addressed to the fans). Like never before, fans are now part of a cultural economy that no longer has anything “shadowy” about it; they enjoy economic power thanks to the new technologies, and are able to influence bands’ artistic decisions. Artists are expected to be considerate with their fanbase. Otherwise, they risk attracting the wrath of hordes of fans that may be as prompt at defending them online as they are at launching murderous press campaigns. In 2011, for that matter, a number of DM fans raised up against the release of Remixes 2: 81-11, a lazy rehash of 2004’s Remixes 81/04. In an open letter, they affirmed they were being disregarded and called for a boycott of the new record.25 In a time of heated online feuds between Team Edward and Team Jake26, a time when armies of Beliebers and Little Monsters27 are assembled on the Net, and when the massive fan population becomes an economically critical issue, the persistence of DM’s analog fandom almost passes for an anomaly.

However, this does not mean Deller and Abrahams ignore these phenomena. If their film stops at the threshold of an art produced “from the masses” one may rightfully wonder how it will be appropriated in turn (excepted by artists, who are already developing an interest in the “prosumer” figure)28, it is probably because they simply are once again the forms historically taken by folk art and subcultures Deller focuses on, in opposition to pop culture. His recent choice of producing and circulating Sacrilege, his own inflatable version of Stonehenge, a site generating a widespread and active subculture linked with more or less serious conspiracy or mystical theories and speculations, but also replicas and alternative versions29, all but confirms this intuition.

  1. One may nevertheless mention, in order to provide a nuance, the brilliant work of Lisa Lewis, ed., The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media (London: Psychology Press, 1992). 

  2. “À la mode,” The Guardian (October 15, 2006). 

  3. Alex Godfrey, “Depeche Mode Fans Like Depeche Mode More than You Do” (2009), http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/depeche-mode-fans-like-depeche-mode-more-than-you-do (accessed 04/02/13). 

  4. John Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in Lewis, The Adoring Audience, 47-48. 

  5. Godfrey, “Depeche Mode Fans Like Depeche Mode More than You Do.” 

  6. Michael Bracewell, “Close to Home,” Mousse, №29 (September 2011) (accessed 12/02/13). 

  7. Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” 30. 

  8. In particular Pasadena’s legendary Rose Bowl, which was filled with 68,000 spectators during the last show of the Music for the Masses tour—a genuine record. 

  9. “À la mode.” 

  10. See Thomas Crow, “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” in Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Serge Guilbaut, and David Solkin, eds., Modernism and Modernity (Nova Scotia: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983), 215: “The cycle of exchange which modernism sets in motion moves only in one direction: appropriation of oppositional practices upward, the return of evacuated cultural goods downward. When some piece of avant-garde does re-enter the lower zone of mass culture, it is in a form drained of its original force and integrity.” 

  11. During a conference given on the 19th March 2012 at the ENSBA in Lyon (unpublished), Jeremy Deller, answering questions from students, repeatedly stressed that he was not condescending, and even less ironic in relation with the folk art forms he documents. 

  12. Isabelle Graw, “Dedication Replacing Appropriation, Fascination, Subversion, and Dispossession in Appropriation Art,” in Louise Lawler and Others (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2004), 52. 

  13. Graw, “Dedication Replacing Appropriation, Fascination, Subversion, and Dispossession in Appropriation Art,” 54. 

  14. Information collected during a discussion between the author and the artist, March 2012. 

  15. “À la mode.” 

  16. Dan Fox, “Lucy McKenzie,” Frieze, №106 (April 2007) (accessed 04/02/13). 

  17. Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” 30. 

  18. Louis Aragon, “Les vampires,” in Daniel Banda and José Moure, eds., Le Cinéma: l’art d’une civilisation 1920-1960 (Paris: Champs Flammarion, 2011), 45-47. 

  19. Pierre-Lin Renié, “De l’imprimerie photographique à la photographie imprimée. Vers une diffusion internationale des images (1850-1880),” Études photographiques, №20 (2007): 18-33 (accessed 14/02/13). 

  20. See “Consumers as Anti-heroes: Some Cautionary Tales,” in Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Design Noir, the Secret Life of Electronic Objects (London—Basel: August—Birkhaüser, 2005), 3-4. 

  21. Alfred Gell, Art and Agency (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 17-18. 

  22. “À la mode.” 

  23. See for instance: depeche-mode.com; modefan.com; depeche-mode.be; pimpfdm.com

  24. “However, at the turn of the twenty-first century, art entered a new era—one of mass artistic production, and not only mass art consumption. To make a video and put it on display via the Internet became an easy operation, accessible to almost everyone. The practice of self-documentation has today become a mass practice and even a mass obsession. Contemporary means of communications and networks like Facebook, YouTube, Second Life, and Twitter give global populations the possibility to present their photos, videos, and texts in a way that cannot be distinguished from any post-Conceptual artwork, including time-based artworks. And that means that contemporary art has today become a mass-cultural practice.” Boris Groys, “Comrades of Time,” in Going Public, e-flux journal (Berlin—New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), 98. 

  25. See http://www.chartsinfrance.net/Depeche-Mode/news-73312.html (accessed 12/02/13). 

  26. Team Edward and Team Jake refer to two rival clans from the Twilight fandom. One defends Edward Cullen (a vampire), the other Jacob Black (a werewolf).  

  27. Nicknames for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga fans.  

  28. See Jakob Schillinger, “The Prosumer Version,” Flash Art, №280 (October 2010) (accessed 12/02/13). 

  29. See the wonderful Clonehenge blog: clonehenge.com (accessed 12/02/13), which I discovered through Nathaniel Mellors. For several years, the idea of an inflatable version has been circulating within this subculture (which one might also call Stonehenge fandom), as the blog testifies. 

Published on <o> future <o>, June 6, 2014.

Jean-François Caro
CC BY-ND 3.0 France