Nostalgia, rave, and club culture in contemporary British art

A room is thick with smoke and lights; gentle vibrations throb in a circuit. They pulsate from speakers through the floor, climbing up limbs and into bodies, converging with heartbeats. It’s a scene which is consoling and familiar, a scene which feels incomplete without the sweet smell of sweat and the sticky intimacy of stranger’s bodies.

This isn’t an illegal rave or a socially distant gig: it’s an installation artwork. A reconfiguration of the Chemical Brothers’ stage visuals by Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall, the work is currently on display in London at the Design Museum’s Electronic: From Kraftwork to the Chemical Brothers. Adapted from the popular ‘Electro Expo’ at The Philharmonie de Paris in 2019, the show’s description is packed with all of the buzzwords you’d expect from a summer blockbuster, promising ticket holders a “genre-spanning” and“three-dimensional” experience. 

After a delayed opening due to the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, Electronic’s artificial dancefloor reconstructions now exude a new significance. Up and down the country, ongoing restrictions have inexorably spurred a chain of anxiety across the night-time industry: clubs grow dusty behind boarded up doors,social gatherings are banned, and partygoers risk a £10,000 fine. For dancefloor enthusiasts in 2020, it’s a painful reality that an art installation might be the closest legal opportunity they’ll get to something remotely resembling club culture.

The Design Museum announced Electronic in 2019, following a succession of UK exhibitions which collectively legitimised the electronic dance music scene as a high-art cultural entity. While Electronic is international in its outlook, 2019’s eruption of exhibitions revolved mostly around homegrown music, stemming from the 1980s and 90s UK rave scene.

Despite its average criticism, the Saatchi Gallery’s ‘Sweet Harmony:Rave Today’ (July - September 2019), was highly popular with the public, later tobe re-displayed at Manchester’s Haçienda as a one-off ‘Warehouse/Art Edit’ in honour of the legendary venue. Much of the marketing of Tate Britain’s ‘Mark Leckey: ‘O Magic Power of Bleakness’ (September 2019 - January 2020) focussed on Leckey’s video work, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999) (famously sampled by Jamie XX), due to its links with rave culture - even hosting a workshop titled ‘Rave, Art and Culture’. What’s more, Jeremy Deller’s acclaimed documentary about the UK Acid House explosion, ‘Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992’, prompted a trail of public nostalgia across social media after it was launched on BBC Four. Galleries capitalised on this nostalgia as it infiltrated our cultural landscape: everyday subcultural objects were archived on jarring white walls, their corresponding soundscapes re-issued as novelty souvenir vinyl in overpriced gallery shops.

Deller’s seminal work, ‘The History of the World’ (2004), is the theoretical groundwork for his ‘Everybody in the Place’ documentary. In a sprawling hand-drawn diagram, “Acid House” conjoins to “Brass Bands” via a succession of words and arrows,economically and culturally connecting the two seemingly divergent forms of music. The work is a historical investigation, attempting to link the UK rave explosion of the late 80s to the de-industrialisation, mass unemployment and civil unrest caused by Thatcherite economic policies. It resembles an ambiguous but nevertheless ambitious attempt to compartmentalise abstract events from recent memory.

With illegal raves popping up across the country, fines issued, and slamming media coverage of hedonistic punters, there is undoubtedly a parallel in feeling between now and then. It would be foolish to politicise a worldwide health crisis to align it with the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, but let’s rewind: although COVID-19 continues to dominate our headlines, months prior to the pandemic we experienced the slamming defeat of a Tory majority in December’s general election. Brexit and the steady rise of unforgiving nationalism spurred a pang of nostalgia on the left, inducing desires for a collective belonging and for the revival of an anti-authoritative attitude. And as the economic impacts of COVID-19 continue to take hold, youth disenchantment with the contemporary Tory government runs high.

In an idyllic haze of baggy clothing, warehouse party flyers and pacifiers, 2019’s rave renaissance arrived as a timely psychosis: a revolution to be relished in all of its mysticglory, however drug induced its reality was.

Nostalgia is prone to idealising past experiences to manifest the belief that they were better ‘then’ than ‘now’ - charging memory with emotion, it can elevate particular memories and erase those more painful, hence its tendency to be melancholic below the surface. And although rave’s inception really was revolutionary for many– consider the younger audiences at these exhibitions, those who have not lived through the bleaker realities mapped out so potently by Deller’s cultural ethnography?

As such, the rawness of grassroots rave might be especially alluring to those growing up in the Spotify era: an era where original sounds grow sparse as music is constantly recycled, where authentic subcultures are destroyed instantly as viral trends are commodified overnight. Young promoters and small-scale venues all over the UK have been struggling in the fight against gentrification and inflated artist fees over the last decade, fighting for air in a saturated marketplace of boutique festivals and superclubs. Lack of public funding means that spaces and creative opportunities for young people are increasingly harder to come by, and the music and nightlife industries are increasingly dominated by those who can afford high cost venues and equipment. 

This is even more worrying now. Due to COVID-19, we don’t know when or if clubs will reopen and many independent music venues have had to crowdfund just to temporarily stay afloat. With a curfew on opening hours, limited capacity and increased staff costs - and still no targeted financial assistance to prop it up - the UK’s world class nightlife industry will be left to die an unforgiving, painful death.

Just as a lack of support from the Tory government for youth spaces and the creative industries is nothing new, punters are notorious for their resilience. Driving scenes into the underground via a lack of monetary support for venues will make health and safety even more difficult to manage, and when unregulated illegal raves become the only feasible option to dance again, the blame will be dished out on a silver platter to the country’s young people.

It’s a paradox that the nightlife sector is still fighting for recognition as a viable industry while the older generation tiptoe through exhibitions of its ancestry, stroking their chins and remembering the ‘good old days’. If dance music and club culture has been elevated to this status in millionaire museums, why is the preservation of the night-time industry - the present-day configuration of rave’s legacy - not receiving the support it needs?

The lights have come on at the end of a long set: they’ll stay on for months to come. Formal documentation of the UK rave scene in 2019 acknowledged electronic dance music and club culture as serious cultural entities – and although many raised their eyebrows, announcing the official ‘death of rave’ – it was vital in highlighting its national importance. We are bound to find innovative new ways to consume dance music and club culture, but government support will very much dictate the road it will take, and whether that road will be safe or not. Currently, the UK government has failed to recognise nightclubs and music venues as significant cultural institutions. Rather than letting the road take its course and wailing in melancholy, how can we mobilise our nostalgia and regain hope for a vibrant music scene? 

NOTE: Information relating to COVID-19 may not be up to date at the time of publication

Since the time of writing, it has been announced that some music venues and nightclubs in England (including Corsica Studios, Motion Bristol, and The Warehouse Project), have been successful in their applications for rescue grants from the UK Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund, distributed by Arts Council England. News on funding for venues in Scotland will follow in the coming weeks.

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Music never lets you down
Puts a smile on your face
Anytime, any place
Dancing helps relieve the pain
Soothes your mind, makes you happy again
Listen to those dancing feet
Close your eyes and let go
But it don't mean a thing
If it ain't got that swing
Bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa, bop-shoo-wa

Chic - Everybody Dance from the album: Chic (1977)