One of the most enduring legacies of rave culture - aside from the music itself - has been its visual aesthetic. The gaudy and psychedelic flyers that once promoted warehouse parties and legendary clubs have become collectibles and precious documents of dance music history. In the US, festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra have updated the spectacle of large-scale events from the 90s with carnivalesque stage designs and sensory-overloading pyrotechnics. Of course, part of the reason for all this visual excess has been the perception-altering properties of ecstasy, rave's ultimate drug. But what's been relatively unacknowledged are the designs of the pills themselves. As manufacturers competed for a burgeoning market of ravers, the products became more ornate: spanning the colour spectrum and adopting a range of insignias with inexplicable origins – often borrowing recognisable corporate logos like those of Mitsubishi and Rolex
Inspired by the accidental artistry of ecstasy pills, veteran raver and artist Chemical X – who declines to give his real name for obvious legal reasons – has transformed rave's chemical catalysts into art objects. His most well known work – the Ministry of Sound logo, which X designed over twenty years ago – has since become ubiquitous with club culture. Since then he's gone on to work with dance music royalty in the guise of Paul Oakenfold and bonafide international pop star Snoop Dogg, not to mention a number of brands like Vans, MTV and even Disney.
For his latest piece, currently being exhibited in the Bear Cub Gallery in London, the anonymous artist has created a mosaic from 20,000 ecstasy pills resembling a stained glass window – playing on the similarities between religious and rave imagery. Last year, two of Chemical X's pieces entitled 'Ecstasy of Art', were due to be displayed at another London gallery but the exhibition was hastily pulled after it emerged that the 12,000 pills used in the piece were real and not replicas as the gallery had initially assumed. This time Chemical X hasn't taken any chances, as he tells me over email, with a back-up plan in place should the exhibition goes awry. I asked him about the genesis of Ministry of Sound, sourcing his materials, the politics of rave, drug life and whether his artwork is the real deal.
THUMP: Where did the idea to make ecstasy pills into art objects come from?
Chemical X: I was always fascinated with the variety of colours and designs that ecstasy took and wanted to use them as the pixels making up an image. It was important to be able to see the whole pill though so, in my first pieces, I set them into laser cut acrylics and sandwiched them in non-reflective acrylic. This means that, not only can you walk around them but, when lit correctly, there appears to be nothing stopping you from touching them.
The latest pieces use a different technique, more like a massive stash box with all the pills held in by wedging them in – like a mosaic of mandy.
Can you talk me through the concept for your latest piece?
Bear Cub Gallery approached me and asked if I'd be interested in contributing to their Ark project. I really liked the concept - each artist creating a pair of pieces based on an animal from the Red List of endangered species. The dove motif fitted perfectly with the Noah story and Bear Cub's philosophy is not to have a permanent space with a load of white walls housing a drab conveyor belt of art, so holding the show in the crypt of a church meant that the stained glass window was perfect. God's stash box.
So The Prophets of Ecstasy was born. The smiley was the one clear nod to the rave generation, other than that it is more about the good and the bad of drugs. The highs and the lows. "The Rapture" represents the highs with the sunshine and the rainbow and the bright colours. "The Reckoning" is darker and more monochrome. It speaks of the comedowns - as shown by the shooting star, burning up as it comes down, and the blues that are the price you pay. There will also be a very limited edition of full sized prints. They aren't reproductions made from the works but are totally new pieces of artwork made to follow the original pair. Two by two.
Religion's often been described as the opiate of the masses and, similarly, one frequent criticism of rave culture has been that ecstasy pacified - rather than politicised - the masses. How do you see the role of ecstasy in rave culture, is that something you'd contest?
Ecstasy changed a lot of things in UK youth culture. It was our version of what acid did to the Californians in the 60s. Dance music changed as the people that made that music took the drug themselves and understood what worked with the effects. Fashion changed, policing changed, football violence changed but, alas the drug changed too and, due to the scourge of prohibition, people started getting all sorts of shit in their beans. MDMA wasn't about confrontation it was about acceptance and love but the raves themselves were a political force. The right to party rather than the Party of the Right.
Ecstasy pills themselves have a history of intricate designs and brands. Do you have any particular favourites?
As far as designs are concerned there are hundreds of them; crazy shapes (Obama ones are hilarious) and crazy colours but they still tasted like you were licking the Cillit Bang nozzle. My personal favourites were the dove, fuck knows where that bird came from, the Mitsi – many a good night driving the Mitsibushi in a donut – and I was always partial to a New Yorker too.
You ran into some trouble with your last exhibition. Did you have any problems this time?
Last time it was a combination of cold feet from the gallery and the head of the Home Office Drug Licensing & Compliance getting involved. This time we are trying a combination of hiding in plain sight, having security ready to pack up the pieces as soon as it gets a bit tasty and not directly admitting to anyone about what they are made of.
So are the pills used in your artwork actually made from MDMA or just reproductions?
I refer the right honourable gentleman to my previous response.
You're currently selling two of your previous pieces, is there any precedent for selling artwork made with illegal substances? Do you see yourself getting into any problems selling the pieces?
It's an interesting one to be sure. We have sold pieces before and the collectors ask us not to photograph the work at any stage and not to release any details about them or how much they were sold for. Both the work and the collectors need to remain totally anonymous at all times. For The Prophets of Ecstasy we teamed up with Bit2Bit to sell the pieces exclusively through the Bitcoin currency - guaranteeing that even we don't need to know who is buying them.
Interestingly, the sale of your artwork would probably incriminate the buyer as well. Hypothetically speaking would you mind if the buyer resold your artwork as MDMA?
They would have to be pretty stupid to do that. Like buying a Fabergé egg and then breaking it up and selling the jewels. My work sells for more than the sum total of its parts and each buyer receives a notification that they contain no illegal drugs so, as long as they don't tamper with the artwork they are able to say that as far as they are concerned they have bought art rather than drugs. And in a way they have. The pills become art once they are sealed into the housing.
Obviously there must be considerable costs and risk involved in sourcing the materials on your part?
The most important rule is that the work must never fall into the wrong hands. We do have some contingency plans around that but I can't tell you what they are. We make the pills in-house, we have two pill presses, one in my studio where we get the colours right using blanks and one elsewhere where they are made up with all the ingredients in. The pieces are held in a secure location and there is no cross contamination. We purchase the ingredients wholesale, so to speak, and we finance that through our sales to private buyers. We are very strict on knowing the exact measurements involved. All powders are weighed at various stages of the process and any pills that are not used in an artwork are crushed and recycled. Each pill has an 'X' on the back so even if someone decided to use the machine to do a moonlighting job, we would find out about it from punters.
So how did you come to design the logo for the Ministry of Sound?
I know Justin Berkmann who is the brains behind the concept of the Ministry and brought what he learned from DJing in New York's Paradise Garage over here. I was asked to visualise the club for pre-launch but I persuaded them that they needed a brand and a logo. At that time only Oliver Peynton was doing anything that resembled good design around a club or club night.
What I like most about the MoS logo is that it's the last significant icon to be designed before computers – I have the original framed on my (toilet) wall. We designed Paul Oakenfold's Perfecto logo only a short time afterwards but it was on a computer so there is no original. Nowadays there are no original anythings apart from art.
What are your feelings towards the brand today - did you anticipate the club growing into the international brand that it is now?
I didn't think it would last 6 months if I'm honest! On paper it shouldn't have worked - Elephant and Castle, disused bus depot, no booze! But I remember Justin standing me in the middle of the dance floor and cranking the system up and the purity and power of that sound made me aware of all my internal organs. Since then it has only got better. The Ministry definitely set the standard by which all other club sound systems would be judged.
As for the brand, we used to make some TV commercials for them and MOS were clear that they are not like other clubs and retained certain standards. Then they brought out the Eric Prydz "Call On Me" video and it all went out the window. The brand is the most valuable asset for them now as there are many pretenders to their crown. The Annual is their best seller but isn't all exclusive tracks - so Granny needs to know she is buying the right one for little Johnny Hardcore's Christmas stocking and the logo does that job for them.
And finally settle an old debate for us, do you think pills were really better back in the day or is it just nostalgia?
Put it this way, I had my first pill in 1985, it was £45, one lasted you from Friday to Monday (and we were all seasoned pros) and was the most amazing drug I have ever taken in my life. MDMA is an incredible drug, the problem is "ecstasy" isn't MDMA.