Agony and Ecstasy: How Rave Culture Went Global

From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic dance music’s soul

Why does electronic dance music and its ancillary nightclub and rave cultures still hold such deeply affective power? Matthew Collin’s new history Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music (2018, Serpent’s Tail) plots an ambitious globetrotting journey across four decades. The former BBC foreign correspondent sets out his argument early on, when describing the very public outpouring of grief that followed the death of pioneering house producer Frankie Knuckles in 2014. Among those paying tribute was none other than former US President Barack Obama, who released a statement recognizing the giant socio-cultural impact that the experiments which Knuckles had first embarked on in the 1980s – armed only with a drum machine and some disco records – would have. Collin goes on to demonstrate this on the grandest possible scale, tracing the mutations of electronic music culture from Detroit to Israel, from Shanghai to Dubai, and onwards across the globe.

Chen Wei, Disco #1001, 2015, archival inkjet print, 75 x 60 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai

Chen Wei, Disco #1001, 2015, archival inkjet print, 75 x 60 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai

Chen Wei, Disco #1001, 2015, archival inkjet print, 75 x 60 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai

From first-hand accounts of tiny, bygone raves to detailed descriptions of now shuttered clubs, only the most enamoured and nerdy of dance music enthusiasts like Collin (author of 1997’s Altered State, a history of UK acid house) could provide such a wealth of anecdotes. At times, it’s a struggle as Collin excitedly jumps from story to story, allowing quotes to speak for themselves without dissecting their further resonances. Deeper analysis feels necessary: Why do so many of us enjoy and obsess over repetitive machine-made sounds? What do these dark rooms provide that the rules of the outside world do not? What is it about the human condition that seems to desire this?

No easy answer is given. Perhaps the clue is in the sheer multitude of subjective responses. Collin often gets closest to profitably approaching these questions when his prose suggests a kind of glazed-over, impassioned, verging-on-nonsensical account of his experiences. Consider the form of pathetic fallacy he employs to describe a night in Berlin’s hallowed techno haven, Berghain: the ‘808 snares’ become ‘a shower of hailstones’, gathering in an ‘electrical storm’ of frequencies. These descriptive clichés reveal the ritualistic experiences of ecstasy (the feeling and the drug) within this heady, heterotopic environment. But in other ways too these nightclubs can claim to be new sites of resistance. Wolfgang Tillmans, who incidentally has just announced the release of an EP of techno music (and whose huge photographs famously adorn the walls of Berghain) is quoted: ‘It must seem crazy to a marketing person to go to the club and see 2,000 happy faces and no message is being broadcasted to them.’ Berghain’s two famously media-shy founders are once reported to have said ‘that they wanted to create a club as a work of art’. Collin, however, makes no attempt to unpack how their desire may or may not have become a reality.

Book cover of Matthew Collin, Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music (2018, Serpent’s Tail). Courtesy: Serpent’s Tail

Book cover of Matthew Collin, Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music (2018, Serpent’s Tail). Courtesy: Serpent’s Tail

Book cover of Matthew Collin, Rave On: Global Adventures in Electronic Dance Music (2018, Serpent’s Tail). Courtesy: Serpent’s Tail

It’s the uneasy balance between drug-fuelled abandon and its socially progressive impulses that makes this culture so difficult to handle. Often the positive power lies in the pursuit of actualizing imagined fantasies. Collins suggests that in the dilapidated and dangerous Detroit of the 1980s, futuristic-sounding techno served as a vehicle for black producers and DJs to ‘dream another potential destiny into existence’. While in Berlin, techno is posited as the post-Wall healing gel that provided a way for two sides to come together – the intense power of the German capital’s music and clubs would later mark out sites for highly lucrative cultural tourism.

These are well-trodden paths, but Rave On is at its freshest when Collin considers this uneasy matrix in new outposts of the rave phenomenon, such as in Shanghai. Here, a small underground scene battles against dominant socio-political perceptions of nightclubs as sites of nihilistic debauchery, while also defining itself against commercialized branded exercises in profitmaking. The now-closed (after licensing issues), literally underground club, The Shelter, is juxtaposed with the Budweiser-sponsored, outdoor Storm Festival. At the latter, Collin describes how advertisements are screened between DJ sets – it’s a far cry from Tillmans’s non-commercial Berghain paradise.

Chen Wei, In The Waves #5 (detail), 2013, archival inkjet print, 150 x 188 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai

 Chen Wei, In The Waves #5, 2013, archival inkjet print, 150 x 188 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai

Chen Wei, In The Waves #5, 2013, archival inkjet print, 1.5 x 1,9 m. Courtesy: the artist and Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai

It seems that at least in Shanghai, the only way to battle against monolithic and inflexible regulation is to adapt. The owners of The Shelter have opened a new club, ALL – while it’s not the type of nightspot that would compromise on its abrasive musical ethos (exemplified by local producer stalwarts, Tzusing and Hyph11e), on a recent visit the interior felt like an upgrade. A large HD screen situated behind the DJ is often used to show new CGI artworks – including pieces by Kim Laughton and Wang Newone – while the club’s lighter, ostensibly more flashy space feels less like its previous incarnation and closer to some of the ubiquitous table-service EDM spots in Shanghai that Collin also details. That this new club should birth in the time between Collin finishing his text and going to press just goes to show the tremendous pace at which electronic dance music is changing across many of its new global frontiers.

Main image: Chen Wei, The Stars in the Night Sky Are Innumerable, archival inkjet print, 2.5 × 3.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Leo Xu Projects, Shanghai

Tom Mouna is a writer based in Beijing.

Most Read

The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
The punk activist-artists have been charged with disruption after they charged the field during the France vs Croatia...
27 educators are taking the London gallery to an employment tribunal, demanding that they be recognized as employees
In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018