In Off the Record, rave historian Michaelangelo Matos takes a critical look at the culture surrounding dance music—from food to clothes to design and writing. In this installment, he reviews Black Dog Publishing's new book, RAVE: Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture.
Most books on popular music, from jazz to rock to hip-hop, are intended for reading, not looking at. The electronic dance music bibliography, though, is split far more evenly between written books and collections of images: photos, flyers, ephemera, 12-inch vinyl. That's a striking and telling balance. Sure, it's frustrating that despite dance music's enormous global audience, publishing houses still largely see its fans as nonreaders compared to, say, Dylan fans—a tide the latter's recent Nobel Prize win will do nothing to stem.
On the other hand, it makes sense: Dance music's not about words anyway, right? It's about a sensory experience, and as such, images can sometimes convey even more about the feeling of being in a particular time and specific music scene than words. The most vivid book of dance-music images I know of is Neville and Gavin Watson's Raving '89, a fabulous collection of black-and-white photos (and some text) focusing on the exploding British rave scene in 1989. (A 36-page PDF sampler can be downloaded at DJ History.)
Published in 2009 by DJ History (the book imprint of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life authors Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton), Raving '89 is full of you-are-there shots of young Londoners going mental at parties. There's a hunger and fury radiating from nearly every image—a readiness to escape into something both more benign (cheers to peace and love and dancing!) and unruly (the outdoor raves that flourished in 1989 would be literally outlawed five years later). I'd read about the early UK raves and listened their music for years before I'd seen Raving '89, but nothing had put me inside the era in the same way.
Gavin Watson's crystal clear black-and-white photos give the book a documentary quality: You can see these kids' eyes pinwheeling, but also—as in a shot of two men, one leaning on a car, grinning, the other talking on a brick-like early cell phone—the cash-under-table business structure of early rave. Britain in the late-80s was awash in unemployment and economic slowdown, and many promoters started throwing parties in spaces that had been devastated by the recession. As British writer Rupert Southcombe puts it, "without Thatcher's 'scorched earth' industrial policy the venues that were used to host illegal parties would not have been perhaps so numerous."
The black-and-white starkness of Raving '89 puts it a world away from most club photography, which is usually not only in color, but making the most of it; colors and lights often smear in rave photo books, the better to approximate a dancefloor's action. These books can be so true to their giddy, messy times that all that color-blurring and sensory overload lead to straight-up kitsch. My favorite example, long out of print, is UK photographer Jonathan Fleming's What Kind of House Party Is This? (MIY Publishing, 1995), a book I refer to fondly as "Attack of the Photoshop."
A self-published, oversized paperback full of Fleming's pictures, What Kind of House Party Is This?—say that title in the most chipper British accent you can muster, it's fun!—is also full of Fleming's clear giddiness over his endless options for both layout and typography. The book's first part, Q&A's with 75 of the world's top UK and US DJs and producers, features a completely different font and layout for each artist. The second part, comprising of photos and flyers from UK parties from 1988 to 1994 (including legendary events such as Shoom, Spectrum, Rage, Sub Club, and Eclipse), gives even more leeway to Fleming's Photoshop fancies. My copy of What Kind of House Party Is This? has fallen apart thanks to my mining it for info over the years. But its real worth may well be unto itself, as a time capsule: the rave aesthetic on the printed page.
The sweeping subtitle of Black Dog Publishing's new RAVE: Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture makes it seem like it, too, intends to capture the rave aesthetic on the printed page. But, despite the alluring baby-blue-and-neon-pink cover design, that's not truly the book's aim. Edited by Nav Haq, the senior curator at M HKA—Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, RAVE isn't a Taschen-style survey of rave flyers' visual echoes. Rather, RAVE focuses on artistic works inspired by rave culture in some manner—beginning with the artists in the Haq-curated interdisciplinary exhibition Energy Flash: The Rave Movement, which ran at M HKA from June 17 to September 25, and including pieces by fifteen others, among them designer Walter Van Beirendonck, photographer Andreas Gursky, videographer Sergey Shutov, and conceptual artist Jeremy Deller.
So, visually speaking, how ravey is this stuff — how in-your-face neon, how full of Mandelbrot patterns, how smiley? Overall, not very, which is somewhat surprising when you consider that the book's locus are the years between 1988, the year acid house blew up in England, to 1994, the year of the Criminal Justice Act—the bill that essentially outlawed outdoor raves in the UK. This storied period is when much of modern dance music was largely codified, many of its biggest stars were minted, and the music went from renegade parties in fields to infiltrating the bigger music biz in the UK and Europe via blockbuster acts like the Prodigy and above-board shows such as Orbital's triumphant Glastonbury set in 1994.
The book contains many photos of installation pieces and video stills, among them Irene de Andres' video work Festival Club. Where Nothing Happens (2013)—a video series of graffiti-covered ruins from former club sites. Most of the stills from de Andres' videos look frankly blasé; in one of them, we get a close-up of a Tyree 12-inch seemingly found in the rubble: "Acid Over" (quick, everybody, spot the symbolism!). But in a slightly different section of the book, a two-page spread of DJ Alfredo (whose sets inspired Shoom) spinning in an empty Ibizan ruin that hosted raves in the 80s and 90s is nothing short of startling.
Of course, psychedelic kitsch and opulent color schemes are far from absent, and often fuel RAVE's most memorable work. George Barber's stills from Video High (1994) are cheeky, museum-ready works that take off from the kind of screensaver-ready animation of early virtual reality, as showcased on videotapes such as X-Mix 3: Enter Virtual Reality (an offshoot of the DJ mix CD of the same name by John Acquaviva and Richie Hawtin), as do the eye-popping colors of the stills from Sergey Shutov's Raveolution, from 1992.
A rave is often defined by scale, and crowd imagery offers some of RAVE's more powerful work. We see tantalizing stills from Jef Cornelis' 1997 film De Kleuren van de Geest (The Colours of the Mind), which explores the rave "as a means to look at the social and spiritual role of self-induced trances in esoteric folk cultures historically," including "European paintings depicting pleasure gardens filled with large groups of people engaging in the fervour of Moorish dance" and the Gnawa culture of modern Morocco. Similarly, the stills from Dan Halter's video Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of Rave), show neighboring South African protesters in the early 90s as their own kind of mass-gathering "raves," and Andreas Gursky's Union Rave series of large crowd works are knockouts even at eight-by-ten inches.
The paraphernalia of electronic music makes its way into several works, though an installation by Jacques Andre offers some full record and bookshelves and scattered leaflets on a gallery floor that seems more like interior-designer porn than art. Ditto Cory Arcangel's white-room view of a 909 plugged into a pair of speakers. But Ann Veronica Janssens' Representations d'un corps rond (Representation of a Round Body) offers rave lighting rigs as installations unto themselves, making their familiar beam arrays into objects of contemplation, and its enormity translates even on the page.
In addition to the artworks, Haq's introduction and "A Glossary of Rave" — 33 alphabetical items given clear, paragraph-length definitions — are joined by pieces by Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun, two of the sharpest British writers on dance music in the post-rave era, and Q&A's with producer Wolfgang Voigt (AKA Gas, among numerous aliases, and the co-founder of Kompakt Records), R&S Records founder Renaat Vandepapeliere, and designer Walter Von Bierendonck about their time in the rave trenches.
RAVE's predominant narrative isn't that that this unlikely thing happened — that people, many on drugs, dancing to DJs playing radically anonymous electronic dance music would become the major strain of global youth culture — but that it ended; and that this began the sunset on the idea of a truly free society. "For those who felt failed by both the market and the state in this moment of economic recession, rave opened up a third kind of space — not necessarily as a counterculture, but more of an alternative culture," writes Haq in the book's introduction. Later he adds: "It exploded as a spontaneous, autonomous movement that formed its own logic based on the collective. It stood for the communitarian we, in opposition to the atomization of neoliberal individualism." The Criminal Justice Act, then, was "a key moment in the erosion of civil liberties, as well as for inhibiting working-class communitarianism."
These ideas echo through the rest of the book, particularly its texts. Mark Fisher offers a razor-sharp reading of the Criminal Justice Act as symptomatic of the capitalistic aims of "cultural exorcism, commercial purification, and mandatory individualism" that led from the late-80s outlaw rave subculture to the upmarket, members-first superclubs (London's Ministry of Sound, Liverpool's Nation) that sprung up in the mid 90s.
RAVE's focus on how neoliberal governments turned counterculture into capitalism is hardly the whole story. For all its insurrectionary quality, rave was also a pop phenomenon in the UK — it took off within a year of Danny Rampling's foundational Shoom, the party that kicked off the British raving paradigm, and even before that house music had become a pop style. J.M. Silk's "Jack Your Body," a foundational Chicago house record, was a British number one in January 1987; Shoom, which made Chicago house tracks its main dish, began eleven months later, in December.) But anger over the Criminal Justice Act still simmers decades later, for driving the freewheeling party culture into the clubs, and it's been sparked anew by the Fabric shutdown, which many see as part of an overall squeezing out of the club culture that replaced rave. It's no accident, and one of the book's best features, that RAVE reprints (on original official letterheads) the full texts of the Criminal Justice Act and related rave-crackdown bills from Belgium ("Concerning Rave Parties") and America (the 2002 RAVE Act and its offspring, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, the latter of which went into law in 2003). They serve as a reminder and a warning: This happened before and it can happen again.
For all of RAVE's wistfulness for a lost age, though, the gathering it describes that comes most fully to life isn't a party, per se, but an art event disguised as one. In the introduction to Belgian artists Denicolai & Provoost, Haq writes: "Their work Nothing (2005) is based on a performance they organized at the S.M.A.K. in Ghent in 2005, where they arranged for the police, fire engines, and ambulances to drive around the proximity of the museum with the sirens running, forming a chaotic ballet of urgent noises in the night sky. The same evening, the artists organized a rave party in the museum, providing the sense of an illicit event whilst surrounded by the sounds of the authorities." The photos that follow — depicting the party, a flyer on a lamppost for it, and images from a similar 2007 event, Teksid/Acid — are certainly convivial. But here, and not for the first time in this art book, the words convey a party's action even better than the images.