In the years before coronavirus hit, people were beginning to worry about spending so much of their time online. Now, we have no choice: mass isolation has accelerated our digital evolution by immersing us all deeper into the metaverse – and if we're going to be stuck in this strange temporary future, we might as well party like we're already there.
I usually produce, direct and shoot documentaries for VICE in the world outside my flat. Before lockdown started I'd just directed a pilot for a series called Ravespotting, focusing on niche, idiosyncratic rave scenes that have emerged from both the wider hardcore landscape and the recent gabber renaissance. I had symptoms of COVID-19 pretty early on, so I've been quarantining since the beginning of March, watching as clubs and artists began cancelling their events, and shoots for our raving series were shelved.
I figured, though, that no matter the circumstances, people will always find a way to party. So, directing VICE's Tir Dhondy over Facetime, we started to explore the phenomenon of virtual raves from our respective lockdown locations. There were a number of streams we could dive into, from intimate Twitch parties by Arca and UK Birdtable Live, to big room sets by United We Stream, broadcasting artists such as Minimal Violence from empty clubs in Berlin. But we wanted something more interactive.
So we tried Zoom parties. So many Zoom parties. Everything from livestream glitter tutorials to an event host by "vegan tech" pioneers The Gardens of Babylon. But the most interesting Zoom-based rave we found was Covid Room. Based in Italy, ravers attending had been in quarantine for the longest so far in Europe. What made their Zoom party different was being thrown into smaller breakout rooms by the organiser to chat shit with other guests, like you were in the queue for the toilets or the smoking area. Still, while it was great to connect with people going through the same things as us, it did end up just feeling like a boozy glorified conference call.
So we kept at it, hunting for the most realistic simulation of a rave online. Thanks to some cyber nightlife research from my esteemed colleagues Sebastian Gabe and VR enthusiast Lars Myrvang, who lent us his Oculus Rift, we ended up finding some more immersive virtual reality raves.
Second Life has been around since 2003, and has understandably seen peaks and troughs in popularity since then – but thanks to the global lockdown, a large number of users have re-downloaded the game and logged back on, in some cases to attend virtual raves. One SL quarantine rave we found, "Limp Pumpo", had a stacked line-up boasting artists like DJ Loser, Mutant Joe and LA-based rapper Kreayshawn performing sets over 24 hours, where you could dance vicariously through your avatar.
Instead of disco balls there were animated coronavirus spores floating above the dancefloor, while participants danced and glitched through their avatar bodies. The bar was serving virtual coronavirus tests for 5 Linden Dollars, the Second Life currency; the music was ravey, the visuals were ravey – the only problem was that we couldn't really figure out how to dance, other than kicking a CG bog roll around the floor.
At one point, Cheesus Christ – who designed the SL world the rave was held in – announced, "If anyone has any drugs, now's the time to do them." An avatar who looked like the vocaloid anthropomorph Hatsune Miku, wearing weed wings and holding a ridiculously large blunt, retorted, "The only drug I have in this game is viagra."
Later, Tir was taught an industrial techno dance by an Elvis avatar, and Kreayshawn slam-danced through her interview while holding a coronavirus spore – later demonstrating how virtual viagra works by growing an erect penis and thrusting it towards Tir's avatar face.
For some, Second Life is just a place to party during lockdown, but others had been spending much of their time there before the pandemic hit. Some said they wished they could upload themselves into the game before they die so they can spend eternity raving in the digital afterlife.
Towards the end of our journey we finally hit the jackpot, in the form of a man calling himself Mr Wobbles. Known for beatboxing Croydub wobblers to ravers in VR chat rooms while the coronavirus was still hanging around inside bats, Mr Wobbles showed us how to strap into an Oculus Rift and use haptic controllers to move our avatar bodies. Unsurprisingly, that felt like the most immersive experience we were going to get: being able to dance inside another world as a giant banana and see your movements represented onscreen felt weirdly euphoric and transcendental – exactly the sort of feelings you want from a rave.
When it comes down to it, a rave is just a bunch of people taking over a space and turning it into a party. As the internet is the only real space we have beyond our homes right now, it makes sense that people would use it to express themselves in the same ways they might in a club or at a warehouse party. Hopefully, once we're all allowed outside again, we can come together IRL for the third summer of love – but until then, I'll see you on the metaverse dancefloor.