Is Gloving an Art Form Or a Drug Accessory? We Investigated the Crackdown on LED Gloves at EDM Festivals
Ravers say they are being unfairly persecuted and harassed. Festival promoters think otherwise.
The art of moving hands encased in LED-embedded gloves—commonly referred to by ravers as "gloving"—is a still growing phenomenon in rave culture. Its origins are murky, but long-time enthusiasts point to a YouTube video of a gloving legend named Hermes giving a performance at a Southern Californian rave in 2006 as one of the earliest recorded performances. Around that time, the scene was completely DIY, and enthusiasts made their own gloves with lights bought at electronic supply stores like Fry's. From there, gloving has grown into a million-dollar industry—according to CNN, the biggest seller of LED glove sets, Emazing Lights, projected its sales as $13 million in 2015.
The success of the art form can be seen in its fans' devotion to it online. Videos of famous glovers like Gummy and Skittles have upwards of three million YouTube views each, and the most popular gloving group on Facebook, Glover's Lounge, has nearly 20,000 members.
But just as the gloving community was coalescing on the internet over the last few years, the art form hit a major IRL roadblock in 2010, when a 15-year-old named Sasha Rodriguez died after attending Electric Daisy Carnival (EDC) in Los Angeles. The coroner's office later ruled that her cause of death was due to complications from taking MDMA.
Following the incident, EDC was banned in LA in 2010 and moved to Las Vegas. A new law called the Concert and Music Festival Safety Act—or more commonly, "Sasha's Law"—put in place that year now requires large events taking place on state-owned property to be assessed for health and safety threats by public agencies. Due to these new restrictions, big dance music events in the LA area were put under much greater scrutiny, and ended up blacklisting LED gloves in order to present a non-druggie appearance.
Former California Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, who championed Sasha's Law, was also in favor of banning all rave accessories from festivals, believing that this would lead to a reduction of drug use and therefore safer events. In a 2011 interview with ReasonTV, Ma explained that this ban would cut the ties between EDM festivals and rave culture, making events like EDC "more like a concert where people go to a venue to enjoy themselves." Ma declined to speak with THUMP for this story.
Though the law, approved by Governor Jerry Brown in October of 2011, didn't end up explicitly restricting rave gear at music events, it seems Ma got what she wanted anyway. In January 2011, Insomniac Events, the US-based promoter behind EDC, announced on Facebook that LED gloves would be prohibited from all of their events. Referring specifically to the practice of light shows—performances where the glover kneels in front of viewers and twirls her lit-up fingers at close range—Insomniac wrote that "the image it creates when groups of music fans are sitting or lying on the floor gazing at the designs... sends a false message of what the electronic dance music scene is about."
THUMP's Michelle Lhooq explains the new restrictions on LED gloves on today's episode of Daily VICE
Glovers were outraged by the ban, flooding Insomniac's Facebook post with hundreds of negative comments—one said, "lets [sic] see how business goes with the ban of lights." But four years later, the ban is still in effect. In fact, it's spreading; gloving has since been banned from events put on by Mad Decent, HARD and Ultra. Because light shows are usually performed seated, they are also considered by event promoters as a potential fire safety hazard.
Combined with its association with drugs, this may explain why festivals' bans have focused on gloving—while other "flow arts" that use lighting accessories, such as poi, glowsticking and orbiting, have been left alone. In a 2014 gloving feature in Rolling Stone, Insomniac's CEO, Pasquale Rotella, explained his reasoning further: "Between the fire marshals and the media perception, [gloving] was putting the events in jeopardy and was not helping the health of the culture."
The ban has resulted in a growing conflict between enthusiasts and the promoters behind dance music events. According to multiple ravers THUMP spoke with, event staff have resorted to aggressive tactics such as tackling and grabbing glovers—and in some cases, soliciting bribes in exchange for returning their gear.
"As soon as I kneeled down and turned my gloves on, security shone a flashlight at me and started screaming at us," Kaleb Lane, a 25-year-old glover who lives in the Bay Area, told THUMP about one such experience in 2014 at Insomniac's Dada Land festival in San Bernardino, California. "I started taking my gloves off, and all the sudden this huge security guard tackled me, put my head to the ground, held me down with his knee, [and] started cussing me out, saying, 'we're tired of you guys bringing these things in here.'" Lane said the guards told him he either needed to give up his gloves or get kicked out. "I tried explaining to him that these cost a lot of money, I'm just a student in college," Lane continued. "Finally I was like, well I can't just leave the event, I paid x amount of dollars for this. So I gave him my gloves."
Glovers at Hard Summer 2015 showing off various gloving styles
Brian Lim, a 28-year-old Southern Californian who founded the industry's biggest online glove retailer Emazing Lights—they have 80 percent of the market share, according to Business Insider—believes that there's a financial incentive for festivals to enforce the ban. "Unfortunately security has picked up on the resale value and they're literally yanking them from glovers forcefully and reselling them to glovers like five minutes later," Lim said.
Lim's allegations were echoed by several other ravers we spoke with. At another Insomniac event called Nocturnal Wonderland in 2015, Lane said a guard approached him and his friends while they were gloving and asked for a bribe: "[He] said if we pay them $20 for each person who had gloves on, they'd let us keep our gloves."
Does having lights on the end of their fingertips justify abuse?
Another glover named Gregg Lillie, who organizes gloving competitions for Emazing Lights, had a similar experience at EDC Vegas in 2012. "Suddenly, I was violently picked up from behind by my throat and thrown to the ground," Lillie told THUMP. "It was a security guard telling me I was not allowed to glove—either I give him my gloves and my ticket for the whole weekend or pay him $50 cash. I naturally pulled out my wallet, which only had $15 in it. He snatched it from my hand, took the money out, threw my wallet on the floor and told me to have a nice night."
Mike Angel, a former star glover who founded Puppet Masters, one of the first gloving crews, has also witnessed this behavior from security. "[Security] just came into events and that was their purpose: let's go find these glovers, take their gloves, and [get bribes from] them," Angel told THUMP. "They would honestly get more money from the glovers than their daily rate pay."
While people who bring their gloves into Insomniac festivals are obviously breaking the rules, Lim believes the actions of the guards are still extreme. "We're talking about them having lights on their hands. That's the offense here," he said. "Does having lights on the end of their fingertips justify that kind of abuse?"
But some, like former Assemblywoman Ma, still believe that LED gloves are nothing more than accessories to the drug experience. Ma's mandate to "break down rave culture," as she put it in her interview with ReasonTV, follows in the footsteps of Joe Biden's notorious Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, widely known as the RAVE Act (a predecessor that failed to pass), explicitly made illegal any space that was "using, distributing or manufacturing any controlled substance" in 2003. What exactly constitutes an environment permissible to the use of drugs is ambiguous according to the bill's terms, but "chill out rooms" and rave accessories were listed as examples, leading many event producers to forbid both.
None of the promoters are going to try to defend it because they know better, they know the ban is a joke.
However, most experts in harm reduction agree the RAVE Act isn't working. "It's been very ineffective at curbing drug use," said Missi Wooldridge, the executive director of harm reduction organization DanceSafe. In fact, Wooldridge argued that the law has had the opposite of its intended effect by putting ravers in even more danger than before. "Many event producers are turning a blind eye to the realities of drug use, thus causing more medical emergencies, overdoses, and deaths," she claimed.
"No event organizers, from my knowledge, have ever been persecuted from offering harm reduction services at events in the US," agreed Linnae Ponte, the Director of Harm Reduction at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). "But the RAVE Act has been enough of a deterrent to keep harm reduction services like free water, harm reduction literature, and chill out areas out of many events."
Michaelangelo Matos, author of The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America, believes that attempts to curb drug use by banning rave accessories is completely misguided. "It isn't going to work," he told THUMP. "They're not going to keep drugs out of people's hands by not letting them have glowsticks, it's absolutely dumb."
Several of the people I talked to admitted that drug use was not unheard of among glovers or those who watch light shows at festivals. "There are definitely some bad apples who are under the influence and gloving does enhance their experience," admits Lim. "It's not a good look for the festival." Glover Jeremy Brown also acknowledged drug use by festival goers. "A lot of companies want to pretend people don't do drugs at their festivals, but the reality is that people will do drugs at festivals no matter what," he said. But he added he gives plenty of light shows to sober attendees as well: "I can't tell you how many times I've been told, 'I'm not even on drugs, but this looks incredible."
Mad Decent, Insomniac, Coachella, and former Assemblywoman Ma all declined to speak with THUMP, and HARD did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Matos thinks he knows why this is the case. "None of the promoters involved are even going to try to defend it because they know better, they know that it's a joke," he said. "It's just empty rhetoric. There's no upside to it, it's just really stupid."
Emazing Lights' Lim, who compared Insomniac's ban to "a natural disaster that hit the gloving scene had" in Rolling Stone, is now explicitly focusing on changing public perception of gloving from a hobby of drugged-out kids at festivals to a legitimate art form, a sport, and even something that can be therapeutic. To this end, Emazing Lights created the annual International Gloving Competition (IGC) and emphasize the times gloving has appeared on reality shows as a dance form. Their list of goals on their site also includes their proposal for raves to create dedicated "Flow Gardens" for glovers and other flow artists to perform, limiting the danger of becoming a fire hazard.
They wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for this art form—just like me
Emazing Lights has also created a program called Glove4Glove, which gives a free pair of gloves away to the "less fortunate" for every $70 set of Chroma24 gloves sold. This initiative was inspired largely by the story of Matthew Fernandez, a 17-year-old raver who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Thanks to hours spent gloving, Fernandez claims he enjoys a wider range of hand movement than he does through physical therapy alone. His older brother, Mike Angel, told THUMP that gloving has also helped Matthew gain confidence. "He is like a totally different person," Angel said of his brother, who he told me barely socialized in the past. "He has conversations, he's happy. The feedback he gets, it's just phenomenal."
The positive impact of their hobby was heavily emphasized by the glovers with mental health issues who I spoke with. Sari Isaak, 22, said gloving helped her deal with a particularly rare and debilitating form of bipolar disorder. "When I focused on the art form instead of what was going on with me, it just made all of my pain stop altogether," she said. Others told me gloving had helped them through bouts of depression. "In college, I went through way too much with losing my brother, and gloving is what brings you back to life," Lane said. "Numerous friends who've also dealt with depression have found solace in gloving," Brown added. "They wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for this art form—just like me."
There might be some science to back up claims of gloving's psychological benefits. Dr. Dennis Marikis, a Mt. Vernon, Ohio based psychologist, has been working with neurofeedback for 20 years, and believes that gloving could have an effect similar to flickering light treatment, in which patients watch a light flicker at the speed of desired brain waves in an attempt to sync up their brain waves. "I certainly could see the benefit [of gloving]," he told me. "[Gloving] is not calibrated [to the frequency of certain brain waves] so it's a little different [from my work], but not terribly."
Whether gloving is as beneficial as those who love it want to believe, or just a fun way to pass the time at dance events, don't expect event producers to lift the bans anytime soon. Despite onoing efforts like Emazing Lights' Change.org petition (currently signed by 4,450 supporters), the industry has not budged since 2011, and the bans continue to spread—Coachella announced their ban in TK. But that doesn't mean the glovers are giving up. Gloving-specific events have popped up, from Emazing Lights' International Gloving Competition and BOSS Gloving Competition to nights put on by smaller organizations like Art of Gloving. Glovers are determined to show the world that their art is here to stay.
Gregg Lillie and others I talked to were confident that, like many once-controversial artforms from skateboarding to graffiti, gloving will eventually overcome the criticisms of its detractors. "Right now gloving is just the new kid on the block," Lillie said. "How are you going to tell young people it's wrong to dance and express themselves?"
If you see Sophie at a rave, give her a sick light show. Otherwise, follow her on Twitter