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Catalogue text – ‘Feed Your Head: The Speculative Futures of Rave’, TULCA Festival of Visual Arts, November 2018

November 21, 2018

Feed Your Head: The Speculative Futures of Rave

 

 

 

 

 

 

A hoarder friend was having a clear-out and handed me an old ticket:

 

SJM presents MANCHESTER MEGADOG

Featuring Eat Static + Egebamyasi + Imperium

WEDNESDAY 22nd MARCH 1995

Manchester Academy

Doors 9pm – 4am.

 

More often than not, our student days blur into one continuous party, with vague memories occasionally thickening around significant moments. Sometimes we recall locations – a warehouse in Hume, an afterparty in a Sheffield basement, a church in Birmingham where the dawn streamed so euphorically through stained-glass windows, that the entire crowd shifted one step closer to God… Occasionally dates are the most memorably factor. Who can forget the frenzied countdown to the new millennium that ushered in the digital age? Computers were still pretty abstract things in those days, and the catastrophic threat posed by the Y2K bug seemed so irrelevant, that it may as well have been happening in a distant galaxy[i].

As a material artefact, this ticket betrays me on many levels. It is forcing me to formalise these memories against my will, defying the fuzzy impulses of nostalgia, by anchoring me to a specific time and place. Collapsing time, it casually exposes everything that has since become outmoded – music subcultures, technology, even certain recreational drugs. To stare at an old ticket is to confront personal aging with gratitude, thankful for an era when mid-week raves were an acceptable way to spend your time. Now I’m googling, not expecting to find very much…

On YouTube, you can view a three-minute promotional video, ‘A short taste of Megadog filmed at the Manchester Academy, Spring 1995’. It’s quite a spectacular experience, to see an off-the-radar, half-forgotten moment from your past, being plucked from the depths of cyberspace. When returning to a place that I’ve previously spent a lot of time, I half expect to see ghosts of myself in the street, going about everyday business. This feels like the same kind of ‘non-place’ – an astral projection, a virtual glitch, a temporal disjuncture between then and now – that somehow belongs to neither domain.

The YouTube description explains that dips in the sound quality are attributable to the footage being “rescued from an ailing VHS copy.” Filmed on cutting-edge video equipment at the time, this grainy footage not only exposes the era’s technological deficiencies but manifests the hazy and ambiguous qualities of memory itself. Such anachronistic conjuring of videotape via the internet serves to contain the event (to a specific place and date), while simultaneously unleashing it onto a global arena, subjecting us to the contemporary forces of retrospective digital surveillance.

 

“As a feverish, sleep-defying impulse,

rave was felt most explicitly

at the level of the body”

 

The soundtrack accompanying the film is Gulf Breeze (Sasha Remix) by Eat Static – a live electronic music act with Merv Pepler and Joie Hinton, former members of the psychedelic rock band, Ozric Tentacles. The spiralling melody and whomping bass-line situate the event within a burgeoning wave of Acid Trance, a spacier version of Techno that fused Acid House with the psychedelic and new age scenes of the mid-90s. The dark, smoke-filled nightclub is illuminated in disorientating flashes. Intermittent strobe lighting reveals a dense, rippling sea of sweat-covered bodies. Synchronised light sequences throw laser beams across the crowd, like the panopticon hunting for escaped prisoners in the dead of night. Against a backdrop of hallucinogenic video projections, we can see silhouettes of stage-dancers, waving arms, flailing dreadlocks, topless men, all high as kites and oscillating at the same frequency. As a feverish, sleep-defying impulse, rave was felt most explicitly at the level of the body.

Filmed in the context of a nightclub, the footage is historically underpinned by rave’s contentious relationship with bricks-and-mortar. Rave culture emerged in the UK during the late 80s, when DJs began to run Balearic club-nights in London, inspired by Ibiza’s all-night beach parties. By mid-1988 – nicknamed the ‘Second Summer of Love’, because it coincided with the UK’s first significant influx of Ecstasy – illegal raves and outdoor parties were springing up spontaneously all over the British countryside, in fields, aircraft hangars and abandoned warehouses. In 1994, the widely contested Criminal Justice Act (which banned trespassing, squatting and many forms of public protest) gave police the power to shut down ‘unauthorised gatherings’ featuring music characterised by ‘the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. Organisers responded by running ticketed events in nightclubs and private members’ clubs. Coupled with relaxed licensing laws, a thriving circuit of commercial all-night raves emerged across Britain’s urban, suburban and provincial nightclubs. The Megadog began as Club Dog, a multimedia event in an obscure venue in North London, which aimed to “recreate the festival environment indoors”[ii]. Megadog later morphed into a touring dance music event, before taking up monthly residencies in The Rocket in North London and the Manchester Academy.

 

There’s Life in the North

Beyond the physical venue, the footage also alludes to the conceptual space of the nightclub, as an important counter-cultural site of hedonistic abandon. With a “policy of inclusivity”, Megadog events attracted a diverse mix of subcultures, from punks, goths, indie kids and drag queens, to new age travellers, boy racers and casuals. According to one of the co-founders, Megadog was a place where “new age met rock, met acid house, met reggae, met squat culture, met cabaret, met film night, met installation”[iii].  It was a space of “unbridled bacchanalia[iv], where loved-up skinheads embraced saucer-eyed hippies and rubber-necking cultural tourists”[v]. Many have argued that rave culture transcended divisions of class, gender, age, sexuality and race, creating levels of heterogeneity not seen in previous or subsequent youth movements. Some suggest that rave was a place of freedom, collectivity and community, at a time when such democratic spaces in public life were being rapidly eroded.

The footage cuts from the dancefloor to a raver queuing in the street outside. He is well-spoken, his cheeks sparkle with glitter and he is wearing a Parka – a style of jacket associated with British mods of the late sixties and revived by Britpop. “There’s life in the North” he says. “Maybe it’s something to do with the Northern struggle of the early years. It’s much more lively; the blood’s more mixed”. During the 1980s under Thatcherism, Britain experienced severe recession, the decline of industry, the decimation of trade unions and the highest levels of youth unemployment seen in half a century. A growing ‘north-south divide’ created unprecedented levels of regional inequality, felt most prevalently in former industrial regions like Greater Manchester[vi]. Above all, this period saw the proliferation of the neoliberal ideology that “individuals should pursue their personal goals within atomised societies.”[vii]

General political unrest continued into the 90s – expressed through the Poll Tax riots, Criminal Justice Act protests and Reclaim the Streets demonstrations, among others. This provided the political backdrop of rave, framing its embodied connectivity as an act of rebellion. Absorbing the defiant spirit of activism, rave resisted the divisive hierarchies and control mechanisms of modern British society by creating “hidden arenas of pleasure in the night-time economy’’[viii]. Though constituted by spatially diverse ‘scenes’ and locations – nightclubs, afterparties, street parties and festivals – rave fundamentally hinged on the production of hedonistic space[ix]. As described by German artist Wolfgang Tillmans (who was heavily involved in Hamburg’s Acid House scene after the fall of the Berlin Wall) hedonism is a highly political gesture that articulates “the right to party, take up space, and control one’s body and identity”[x].

 

Altered States: Transcending Place, Body, Mind

This found footage from a rave in the mid-90s tells us a lot about a culturally-ripe moment in British music history, however, it can be difficult to preserve it from the carnivorous forces of nostalgia, mythology and ‘retromania’. Potentially more interesting is the relationship between rave culture and ‘the future’ – particularly a speculative future, as it may have been anticipated and conceptualised in 1995. Inevitably, such retrospective readings are tainted with our knowledge of what has since transpired.

As evident in the film, one of the most pressing characteristics of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) was its reliance on analogue recording equipment and rudimentary digital technology that has since become outmoded or obsolete[xi]. The era’s large-scale mobile sound systems comprised hardware such as record turntables, synthesisers, drum machines and samplers – computerised devices that convert sound into digital code (zeros and ones), allowing pre-recorded music to be copied, rearranged and replayed. Unlike many DJs of the time, Eat Static created their distinctive sound through technically demanding 52-channel live mixes. In the footage, hefty green-screen monitors, connected via endless wiring, provide cumbersome interfaces for tasks that could be easily carried out nowadays with a simple laptop or iPhone. Around this time, software engineers in California were working on Java, a computer-programming language that would later become the dominant software for internet browser applications. However, in 1995, digital technology was still generally seen as something vaguely futuristic, yet it was embraced by EDM as a vehicle to map and interrogate the collective imagination.

 

Acid Trance used psychedelic event-culture to infiltrate

the dance floor, “that orgiastic domain in which

a multitude of freedoms are performed,

mutant utopias propagated, and alien

identities danced into being”

 

Across post-war popular culture, electronic music had been synonymous with general articulations of ‘the future’. While EDM was broadly perceived as a future-orientated musical genre, the soundscapes and visual iconology of Acid Trance brought these futuristic associations to a whole new level. Firstly, the influence of Science Fiction on Acid Trance is widely evident. Where early rave culture drew on Sci-Fi’s visualisations of dystopian futures, nuclear contamination and apocalypse – with clubwear featuring boiler suits, gas masks, glow sticks and radioactive symbolism – Acid Trance’s socio-sonic aesthetic assimilated Sci-Fi’s imaginings on “the cosmic liminality of space exploration”[xii]. Eat Static took their name from a quote in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), when Khan declares “Let them eat static” – with static suggesting a form of transmission, making its way across the dark galaxy and suffusing everything in its path. Eat Static’s first album, Abduction, expressed the band members’ shared interest in extraterrestrial life and ufology, informed by the modern-day folklore of their hometown of Somerset, the site of mysterious crop circles and alleged alien abductions in the early 70s. Repurposing the figure of the alien as a potent symbol of dislocation, exile and ‘otherness’, Acid Trance used psychedelic event-culture to infiltrate the dance floor, “that orgiastic domain in which a multitude of freedoms are performed, mutant utopias propagated, and alien identities danced into being” [xiii].

Secondly, Acid Trance – also known as ‘intellectual techno’[xiv] – took influence from the ritualistic and transcendental practices of eastern spirituality. As the DJ bounces onstage in front of the crowd, we read the words ‘Feed Your Head’ on the back of his vest. In the footage, cloud formations gather on the screen, offering visual and cerebral connections with Ambient music pioneers, The Orb, who released Little Fluffy Clouds in 1990. Other projections feature spiral symbolism, alluding to rave culture’s tribalistic roots in the Stonehenge Free Festival of the mid-70s. This annual festival was held at the prehistoric Stonehenge monument – a powerful site associated with energy ley lines and pagan sun worship – until 1985, when it was suppressed in a violent clash with authorities that became known as the Battle of the Beanfield.

Lastly, the Acid Trance movement manifested a widespread suspicion about the infiltration of digital technology, still perceived as something mesmerisingly futuristic and ‘otherworldly’. According to political theorist Fredric Jameson, who began theorising the ‘technological sublime’ in the early 90s, “technology represents contemporary society’s ‘other’…[an] anti-natural power of dead human labour stored up in our machinery – an alienated power”[xv]. Eat Static’s live shows were themed around Artificial Intelligence, resonating with the transcendentalist fantasies of cyberpunk fiction that juxtaposed scientific advancements in cybernetics with a radical breakdown in societal order. Augmented and posthuman lifeforms were common motifs, as was the robot or cyborg, described by Donna Haraway a decade earlier as a “cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” who is, without question, the “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism”[xvi]. Eat Static’s stage sets frequently featured large Day-Glo models of brains, surrounded by dense webs of electrical circuitry, perceived as the matrixed site of augmented intelligence and expanded consciousness. If, as Haraway suggested, “liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness”, then the driving narratives of Acid Trance – extraterrestial encounters, digital infiltration and spiritual transcendence – propagated ‘altered states’, through which to depart the planet, mind and body that we currently inhabit. Any journey (intergalactic or otherwise) became a narrative of self-metamorphosis. 

 

By 2005, Fisher noted that “electronica was no longer

capable of evoking a future that felt strange or

dissonant… Electronic music had succumbed

to its own inertia and retrospection”

  

Rave Undead

It is no coincidence that, with the dawn of the internet in the early 90s, Jacques Derrida began conceptualising his theory of hauntology – a zeitgeist of Marxist revivalism that would, ironically and symptomatically, come to ‘haunt’ postmodern critical theory. Derrida defined hauntology as a “disjuncture of temporalities”, best expressed as a time that is “out of joint”[xvii]. Expanding the applications of hauntology, cultural theorist Mark Fisher conceived the contemporary moment as being ‘haunted’ by “all the lost futures that the twentieth century taught us to anticipate” [xviii]. Such futures – including the heterogenous cultures of resistance and transcendence conjured by rave culture – were ultimately prevented, derailed or cut short by capitalism. Through a lifetime of writing, Fisher skilfully analysed the hauntological confluences occurring in popular music, highlighting a continual progression towards ‘the futuristic’ between the early-1960s and mid-90s. After this time, the “very possibility of imagining a future was superseded by existing technologies”. By 2005, Fisher noted that “electronica was no longer capable of evoking a future that felt strange or dissonant… Electronic music had succumbed to its own inertia and retrospection.” After this point, subcultures began to lose their vitality, morphing into a series of “temporal drifts”, characterised by the “remixing and plundering of already existing genres”. For Fisher, the futures that were lost were more than a matter of musical style. More troublingly, this “disappearance of the future” also meant the “deterioration of a whole mode of social imagination”. In other words, it marked the melancholy demise of our “capacity to conceive of a world radically different from the one in which we currently live” [xix].

Via the internet’s nonlinear streams of mass-mediation, rave as a dead movement makes its apparitional ‘return’. Untethered to time and place, chronology and narrative, this undead footage is now free to roam, flitting from screen to screen as a networked, immaterial incarnation. Even more problematic than the separation of the film from its distinctive cultural history, is the reality that it can be instantaneously downloaded and consumed without any obvious sense of this anachronism. The fact that the footage predates the mass self-surveillance of our smartphone age, only further enhances its sense of voyeuristic infringement, as we observe the pre-digital bodies that feature in this short videoclip. Emerging instantaneously without context from another temporality, these fragmented, encoded, virtual bodies – made more foreign through grainy reproduction and outdated fashion – appear as low-res interlocutors from the past. These bodies are real, but within the hyperconnected landscapes of the internet, their realism is compromised. As untouchable, weightless abstractions, their ghostliness is made explicit through hallucinogenic flashes, a phantasmic semi-presence conjured in Day-Glo.

 

Joanne Laws is an arts writer and Features Editor of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet (IRL).

 

Notes:

[i] The Y2K bug, also known as the Millennium bug, was a computer glitch associated with the formatting of calendar data at the start of the twenty-first century. It was anticipated that with the advent of the year 2000, problems would arise in relation to the four-digit date format, necessitating computers worldwide to be upgraded, in order to prevent widespread system failures.

[ii] Andy Fyfe, ‘A Cosmic Dog’, Record Collector (December 2015) p 55.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Bacchanalia – Roman festivals of Bacchus, celebrated with ecstatic revelry, dancing and song.

[v] Andy Fyfe, ‘A Cosmic Dog’, Record Collector (December 2015) p 56.

[vi] As a post-industrial region, Manchester remained an epicentre of countless musical subcultures. Building on the momentum of Northern Soul, a Motown-influenced dance movement of the late 1960s, Manchester’s Punk and post-Punk scenes produced bands like the Buzzcocks, the Fall, Joy Division and then New Order. Indie acts like James and the Smiths were followed by the emergence of ‘Madchester’ in the 80s, which merged with Acid House culture to produce bands such as the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets. Supported by a network of alternative record labels (most famously Factory Records) and venues (including the Haçienda, co-owned by members of New Order and Factory’s Tony Wilson), the city’s distinctive music culture was fuelled by its associations with Manchester, often featuring place-related references and channelling localised experiences.

[vii] Alistair Fraser, ‘Spaces, Politics and Cultural Economies of EDM’, Geography Compass, 6(8), 2012, p 502.

[viii] Ibid. p503.

[ix] See Goulding, C., Shankar, A. and Elliott, R. ‘Working weeks, rave weekends: identity fragmentation and the emergence of new communities’, Consumption Markets & Culture, 5(2), 2002, pp. 261-284.

[x] Ha Duong, ‘Photographers Who Captured the Ecstasy and Abandon of Rave Culture’, 7 September 2018 http://www.artsy.net

[xi]  It’s worth noting that the tactile interactions offered by certain analogue devices have experienced a nostalgic revival in the digital age.

[xii] Graham St John ‘The Vibe of the Exiles: Aliens, Afropsychedelia and Psyculture’, Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, 5(2), 2013, p56.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] By the mid-90s, the term ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ (IDM) was commonly used to denote a whole form of ambient electronic music, with prominent artists including Aphex Twin, Autechre and The Orb. The compilation series released via Warp, ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (1992-4), is widely cited as the start of IDM.

[xv] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (London: Verso 1991) p38.

[xvi] Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s’, Socialist Review, 15(2), 1985, p65.

[xvii] Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, Trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge 1994) p49.

[xviii] Mark Fisher ‘What Is Hauntology?’ Film Quarterly, 66(1), Fall 2012, p16.

[xix] Ibid.

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