Anthony Iles assembles a personalised and politicised history of UK dance culture in relation to singular and mass unemployment, with accompanying art work by Eve Lear.
At Club Transmediale, Berlin 2013, a panel comprised of Lisa Blanning, Lee Gamble, Steve Goodman/Kode9, Mark Fisher and Alex Williams, many of them prominent contributors to ’90s and ’00s UK dance, theory and protest culture discussed the “Death of Rave”.1 The discussion surprisingly took a psychological, nostalgic and melancholic turn, and this approach met strong criticisms from audience members—both those who were too young to have experienced the period in discussion and felt even further alienated by its mystification, and those who experienced the same period differently and felt there were deeper insights to be made. Personally I found myself in the latter camp. If the pessimistic subjectivism of some of the panellists irritated (and this seems out of character for usually astute commentators like Mark Fisher) even more disturbing was the apparent lack of provision of a wider social context or any evidence of either materialist or forensic approaches usually considered appropriate to the study of a corpse.
In an attempt to redress some balance to the discussion of the lost dead object of “rave” culture, this essay traces a history of raves, illegal parties, music and protests in their percolation through independent media (video, pirate radio, flyers, record labels, zines, small press). Rather than asserting a cold, objective rationality totally inappropriate to its object of study, this essay recovers the “personal” discoveries and employment history of a suburban subject exposed to differing articulations of radicality in interrelated cultural and political milieus of the 1990s and early-2000s. It does so to argue that neither culture, class composition or “personal experience” are separable from a wider economic framework, and that these political factors are very much accessible through material culture—media. The essay concludes with some reflections on the sedimentation of this history in contemporary media, political cultures and social movements.
Our starting point is 1993 and a fragment that allows us to make a forthright dismissal of the idea that rave culture didn’t reflect on the political and economic conditions of its possibility. At the beginning of their set at a club night, Vibealite in Mansfield Nottinghamshire, DJ Ratty and MC Robbie Dee make a cheeky and ironic tribute to the unemployed ravers: “A big shout out to the unemployed ravers and the government who pays for them to go raving”.2 This indicates a few things, firstly that high unemployment was a part of the culture, secondly the state supported those out of work sufficiently that they could go out of a weekend, and lastly this was a source of humour and irreverent, even ironic, pride.3
In 1993 I was turning 16. I lived in the suburbs of East London on the London/Essex border. The town where I grew up, Chingford, was a commuter town on the edge of Epping Forest. Typically suburban, during the week the train line to Liverpool Street took the majority of inhabitants back and forth from home to work, many inhabitants worked in financial services industries in the City of London. I, with many of my peers, developed a fierce desire to escape the rat race of this commuter life—to become something other than wage labour. This desire, though necessarily rarely fully articulated in these terms, manifested itself as so many tiny acts of rebellion against the conditioning of education, adult rationality and the banality of a disciplinary culture that seemed always to isolate us as individuals as a prelude to some form of punishment or indoctrination. It was evident that the first thing we needed to escape was the soul-destroying rhythm of the commute to work and home to the suburban house that had been prepared for us, the value-formed canalisation of life.
One direction of escape was along the train line and into the financial district where I’d go skateboarding with a small gang of malcontents. Travelling far and wide on a £1.20 all zones all day travelcard, often with three cards shared between up to six of us since we’d learnt to get at least two people past the barriers on each card. Another line of flight was into the forest where we used play as youngsters and more and more regularly later drink under the stars. Sometimes we’d bump into strangers walking home from raves and outdoor soundsystem parties. One of these was probably Raindance—which started in a giant circus tent in a football field at Jenkins Lane on the East London/Essex borders in September 1989 and later had a revival at Berwick Manor Hornchurch in 1997.4 An important aspect of these lines of flight was music, and in the woods we had a modest sound system of our own. Throughout the years 1992-1994 I recall sharing the stereo between two musical styles—Hardcore, or so-called “Happy Hardcore”, fast electronic music with choppy synths and scattering beats, and Indy, or guitar music such as the Smiths, the Cure and then current bands such as the Happy Mondays, Charlatans and so on. The musical split corresponded to the two different types of schools we attended, with those into hardcore coming from state provided schools (free) and those into guitar music being from public schools (which charged tuition fees). It wasn’t strictly a class distinction since both parties had working class and middle class members, but as well as petty matters such as which cigarette brand each of us smoked, this was one significant way we culturally recognised and distinguished ourselves, for a short while at least.
Looking back with hindsight, and with the substantial information now available online, we could isolate 1989-1990 and 1993 as crucial turning points in the development of rave culture and electronic dance music in the UK. 1989 had seen the consolidation of significant resources to gather information on and suppress the large-scale ticketed parties taking place around the edges of London, and throughout the UK. Chief Superintendent Ken Tappenden, who had also been involved in coordinating repression against the miners’ strike, set up the Pay Party Unit in 1989. Initially the police had little clue about the nomadic and decentralised parties:
We were logging something like 300 or 400 parties per month at the height of that summer, 1989 … There was movement of traffic, movement of people and we were losing a little bit of control.5
The Unit waged a high tech war of attrition on the party scene; setting up road blocks, harassing party-goers, sowing misinformation; surveilling pirate radio stations, party organisers, DJs, scaffolding and sound system crews. With 200 detectives logging information from all over the country, towards the end of 1989 the Pay Party Unit’s database held 5,725 names and details on 712 vehicles. Within weeks, their 200 officers had monitored 4,380 telephone calls and made 258 arrests. This led to legislation in 1990, with the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Bill, which raised fines for throwing an unlicensed party from £2,000 to £20,000 as well as a possible six months in prison. This legislation and the endless petty repression more or less shut down large-scale illegal parties and pushed the scene towards licensed legal clubs.6 Spatially this meant the movement again centralised and concentrated in urban areas—tighter and smaller spaces (both juridically and physically)—which might have had something to do with the more antagonistic turn the music took towards broken beats and aggressive vocals sampled from dancehall, ragga and hip hop.
However, in the interim between 1989/90 and 1993 there was a reaction of sorts, with many seeking to “return to the source”—the good vibes, chaos and heterogeneity of the early parties. Spiral Tribe consciously tried to take things underground again beginning by holding small raves in squats in London in 1990, they built up a mobile sound system and began taking it on the free festival circuit in 1991 and 1992.7 Two years of frenetic activity followed with free parties in the countryside and in squatted spaces in cities. The Spirals and other mobile sound systems initially eluded police attention because the force’s focus had been on pay parties, but they eventually attracted some of the heaviest repression yet culminating in the arrest of 13 members of Spiral Tribe, the confiscation of all their equipment and a long trial immediately in the wake of the huge Castlemorton outdoor party.8 A certain era was over. In late 1992 Spiral Tribe moved to mainland Europe. As the 1990s rumbled on, the legal aspect of the dance scene continued to expand commercially, while its illegal and free instantiation was to face further criminalisation. If in 1989 some of the euphoria had sprung from the massive burst of liquidity unleashed by Thatcher’s boom and from the spectacular political changes occurring globally as the Eastern block collapsed and a student-worker alliance openly challenged Chinese authorities in Tiananmen Square, by 1993 the financial liquidity was drying up and political room for manoeuvre shrinking as unemployment doubled within the year as it became clear that authoritarianism was alive and well in the West.9
Around 1993 or 1994 a friend played me a track by Origin Unknown, “Valley of the Shadows”. As you can see from the label, the record was pressed in Hornchurch, Essex about 4 miles from where I grew up. With sparse instrumentation, few piano riffs, vocals or recognisable synth stabs—driving bass, broken beats which seemed at once both slow and fast, it sounded completely different from anything I had heard up until that point. I asked my friend, Chris, what people were calling this music, he replied that they didn’t have a name for it yet, he didn’t know who’d made the track, people just said: “It’s Dark…”. It was the beginning of a major crossover, since until then the strength of reggae and dub in the UK had been something quite separate from house and techno, suddenly the two genres both began to merge and feed into each other.10
Soon I wasn’t listening to music made with guitars at all anymore. I began to find different illegal raves, clubs and record shops by queuing for clubs, finding drugs, other parties, records, squatted spaces, finding pirate radio stations (like Touchdown 94.1 FM, Defection, Pulse, Rush) by simply spinning the dial, finding record shops through personal recommendations or drifting through the city—these media objects pointed to each other, overlapped, were found and charged with chance. A particularly important moment was when I found a shop called Ambient Soho stocking many white label records that carried the sounds that I liked and which also often came with zines and sometimes in sleeves with lists of URLs on the back. I found an important text for my own self-understanding written by Howard Slater through exactly these channels, through a record label called Praxis, which was linked to a zine called Datacide that published Howard Slater’s writing and had put out a vinyl edition of Howard’s zine Break/Flow. This media was incessantly reflecting upon the conditions of its own making and the milieu that was making it:
post-media activity is not the outcome of a discursive resolution, which would only lead to another discourse, but is the process that allows contradictions to be pushed in the direction of enigmas and provocative alloys. It allows for experimental positions without co-ordinates, it drifts off the map, flees from forced identification (and forced subjectivisation) and takes with it the masks and tools that would enslave it. And so, auto-theorisation is a constant vigilance, a controlled loss, a permutability of the rational and the unconscious. A processing of the self revealing social process. Being both screen and projector, receiver and sender, silent and voluble, being the margins of a centre that doesn’t exist it occupies a liminal position that, in continually being dispersed, coincides and overlaps with a post-media practice whose overall rhythms are broader (a breadth that can turn to history and precursors).11
There was a sense of extending ones small circle of communication and ones perceptual equipment through this intersection of media. This also suggested that you too could seize these media, vinyl, radio, sound, print—to use, redistribute and make similar connections. The media pointed to each other not so much in a causal chain, as a constellation or a maze from which one could gain a vague suggested direction rather than an authoritative instruction. A good example would be the early rave flyers which simply carried a phone number to call to get information of the whereabouts of the party—a piece of paper led to a phone line which referred to a map which led you to a building or site and the all important music—which was time sensitive and often redundant beyond the six hours just before the event. Pirate radio stations also made announcements for the parties offering a fleeting central node from which to broadcast (e.g. Centreforce Radio) to its listeners and thus direct them to a party location. An example from Biology circa 1990:
This is a Party Political Dance Broadcast on behalf of the Biology Party. Here are the following requirements for this Saturdays DJ Convention and gathering of young minds…
Firstly, you must have a Great Britain road atlas. YES THAT’S A GREAT BRITAIN ROAD ATLAS.
Secondly, a reliable motor with a full tank of gas.
Lastly, you must have a ticket and you must be a member.
So we now end this Party Political Dance Broadcast on behalf of the Biology Party. Don’t waste your vote: stand up and be counted.. because… BIOLOGY IS ON!12
A sense of exodus, secession and sedition was ever present in the names of venues, tracks and artist names. Cheeky irreverent humour, in-jokes and subversion were an important part of this. Perhaps the phenomena of humour and the class-cultural content is most evident in the late-1980s early 1990s zine Boy’s Own (“the only zine which gets right on one matey”) which shared a readership across football fans, ravers and gay scenes.13 The makers of Boy’s Own consciously stress the class and spatial dynamics of the new culture they were part of:
Acid house, with its origins in the casual world of beach-loving, E-smuggling hooligans, was when the suburbs stole the reins of popular culture from the middle class art school grads who’d been hanging on to them since the late ’60s.14
This picture needs to be qualified and complexified with regards to the organisational side of the parties and music labels. We know that many of the early organisers of the parties were public schoolboys and entrepreneurs But there were also football hooligans associated with West Ham’s Inner City Firm and enthusiastic chancers such as Biology’s Jarvis Sandy:
I saw the other promoters as toffs, […] and we were the scruffs. But we were doing it from our hearts. You couldn’t beat that. At out parties you could have a barrister dancing next to someone on the dole, but they could be best mates. They were equal.15
Energy was run by Quintin “TinTin” Chambers and Jeremy Taylor both of whom who had previously organised high society gala balls in central London. Two other notorious figures were Paul Staines and Tony Colston-Hayter both associated with Sunrise, which held some of the largest parties in 1989 and drew the hysterical attentions of the tabloid media. Paul Staines has a long and ongoing association with right-wing think tanks. In the early 1980s he collected money for the contras campaign of terror against Nicaraguan revolutionaries.16 Tony Colston-Hayter, “an entrepreneur”, is currently on trial, accused as being the leader of a gang of cyber-hackers who stole over a million pounds from Barclay’s bank.17 Self-confessed “Thatcherites on drugs”, together Colston-Hayter and Staines founded the Freedom to Party Campaign at the Conservative Party conference in October 1989.18 This represented the first attempt to politicise and organise the rave scene against the police and media clampdown. Two demos were held in Trafalgar Square in central London in 1990, attracting respectively 4000 and 10,000 people. However, these demos largely appealed to the self-serving libertarian economic interests of the promoters rather than the interests of the people who attended the parties. In a perverse way the politicisation of rave culture therefore appears first as farce and second as history.
I found my way to the first demonstration I ever attended by picking up a flyer in the queue outside a club. It was the Anti-Criminal Justice Bill march in London 9 October 1994. I didn’t really know what it was about, but I knew there was going to be an outdoor sound system and I sensed automatically that political protest was a logical step from hanging out in an underground culture of semi-legal and illegal parties.
The 1980s had begun with a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher and high unemployment. For the following decade and into the 1990s the general culture had been characterised by the refusal of work (dropping out) and a recalcitrant working class who had fiercely opposed Thatcher’s reforms of the welfare state and destruction of industry. In order to allow Thatcher’s cohorts in the booming financial industries to asset strip industries and public services thousands were thrown into unemployment or precarious work, public housing was run down, vast swathes of industrial real estate was made empty or deliberately left to rot. One of few concessions of the Thatcher government was to leave relatively untouched unemployment and housing benefits for the unwaged and low waged. This lead to lively subcultures supported by a reasonable state allowance, literally living (squatting) and socialising in the material detritus left by Thatcher’s measures. After her reign ended in 1990 the Conservative government remained in power and, as the brief boon from deindustrialisation faded, economic stagnation set in. With the media uproar about the party scene, free festivals etc. it was time to take on the subculture, to discipline and re-division the class. The preamble to this had been a series of hard confrontations with people organising free parties and illegal raves. The group who seemed to draw most of the flack was Spiral Tribe, who after organising a series of parties, some on military land such as the “Torpedo Town”, drew the attentions of police (see Spiral Tribe’s “Calendar of Police Harassment 1991-1992”).19 The Conservative government faced:
the problem of class rule in the new economic reality of global finance capital. […] which seems to be defying any easy resolution is simply the need to impose austerity, the need to attack the gains of an entrenched working class, without destroying the fragile Conservative social consensus represented by the “Essex Man” phenomenon. With the dream of a property-owning democracy sinking into the nightmare of debt, the consensus is rapidly becoming unravelled, but UK plc cannot retreat. What better tonic than a good old attack on those firmly outside of the deal, the marginalized, whose exclusion the Conservative deal was predicated upon, to stiffen up resolve in the ranks for those attacks which threaten to recompose the class. But even such an apparently uncomplicated weapon has been threatening to blow up in the faces of those trying to use it.20
The Criminal Justice Bill was presented to Parliament late in 1993 and introduced a swathe of measures addressing freedom of assembly, picketing, travellers and the new rave culture. It united a diverse subculture of activists, ravers, anti-roads protestors and both “new age” and traditional travellers who understood that the new law would criminalise both their culture and material means of reproduction (in this case housing and the grey economy around raves). The movement had very little to do with any left parties or organisations and generally did not seek to make alliances with them.
The movement may be considered in some ways paradigmatic of class struggle in the era following the retreat of social democracy: unhindered by any powerful mediating force and, as such, both relatively incoherent in its attempts to express its demands and potentially explosive. We seem to be moving towards a situation where the traditional means of recuperation of struggles and integration of its subjects—the “left”—is finding itself increasingly incapable of representing struggles occurring outside of the productive sphere. This retreat of social democracy is itself a consequence of new global realities.21
What this looked like on the street when I turned up to my first demo was a mess, there were travellers, people with dreadlocks, dogs everywhere, small bicycle powered soundsystems, very few banners and very, very little party political regalia. People were drunk, rowdy, dancing and attacking the cops from the beginning to the end (especially if it looked like they were threatening the sound systems). There was very little sense that we were on a “march” from a to b, nor that there was a politically symbolic destination where we hoped to arrive and deliver our message. Instead the movement was the party and the party/movement was the message. This was as good an introduction to politics as any to me and I didn’t see a need for “formal” political organisations then, nor now. The demo ended with a riot as people occupied Hyde Park and tried to bring large sound systems in trucks. The police lost their cool and sent mounted police on horseback charging through.
For some hours riderless horses reeled around to the sound of booming techno through the central London “royal” park. An aspect which complicated the crowd dynamics was that some of those organised around the “Freedom network” involved in the initial organisation of the demo had stressed the need to “keep it fluffy” i.e. to keep levels of violence towards the cops and property destruction to a minimum. This took on a vigilante dimension in the clashes which arose and people from this group took to daubing “violent” protestors with pink spray paint. Needless to say this was useful to the cops later as they cleared up and tried to arrest isolated protestors, they went for those with pink paint on their clothing. Given the chaos this was a pretty bad tactic, many who’d done nothing were arrested. There was a retort in the form of an infamous pamphlet put out by the anarchist group Class War entitled Keep it Spikey given out on the day of the demo before the riot and later reproduced in its entirety by a national newspaper, The Sun. This hopefully gives some indication of how heterogeneous the protest was and what is true for the protest was doubly true for rave parties in themselves.
What unites these groups in such a way that they have become such hate targets of the government is that, although they may be a long way from consciously declaring war on capital, they share a common refusal of the work-ethic, of a life subordinated to wage labour. As such, they pose an alternative to the life of desperately looking for work, which must be made unattractive.22
The 1990s marked the beginning of the period of the “re-imposition of work”. More specifically the full shift which Thatcher had begun, from an industrial empire to a globally networked service provider. The 1990s was this transition, the means of rave and techno culture were a combination of technologies, spaces and income which had been the outcome of devalorisation. Vinyl, radio, loudspeakers, trucks, empty buildings, these were the technologies of a period of industrial production and mass culture. What did it mean that throughout this period of the late 1980s and 1990s hundreds of thousands of people across the country were literally exhausting themselves each weekend and into the working week? Was this a practice for a flexible monadic future? What energies had been unleashed, where had they come from and what threat did it pose that these energies could not be productively employed in industry? What were those gestures, where people appeared to be mechanising themselves in time with the new rhythms of a digitally accelerated life? Was it acting out something to come, a form of exorcism, training of the senses through defamiliarisation, a self-appropriation of self-alienation?
The following anecdotes from a friend give an account of the subtle changes in relations during the second-wave of rave culture and the common experience of politicisation:
In retrospect, the discovery of rave culture was my first real lived experience of any kind of subversive or political subculture that didn’t feel like a mere fashion or lifestyle. I grew up in Newbury, a small suburban town which, over the years, became a kind of meeting point for an array of different protests—Greenham Common, Aldermaston and the anti-roads movement, due to the construction of the Newbury bypass—as well as a jumping off point for free parties in the surrounding countryside. There was an overlap between many of these different groups, which I’m not sure I fully grasped at the time. There is a strange way in which the specificity of time becomes acute when you are growing up, to the extent that you can end up experiencing a whole historical moment quite differently from those who are just one or two years older than you. Being only 35 now, I caught the tail end of rave culture, when the free party scene was starting to subside a little and was being driven back into indoor spaces with varying degrees of commercialism.23
That these experiences were both “vague” and, concretely and spatially felt is suggestive for the kind of materialism which would need to be developed to properly understand and situate them politically in a situation in which they did not recognise the existing formal institutions of politics.
In retrospect, I think that the discovery of those spaces was one of the most formative moments of my teenage life, not so much aesthetically, in terms of the music, (I was much more inspired by funk, blues and hip hop than I ever was by dance, techno or trance music), but more in terms of the different quality of social relations those spaces seemed to offer, particularly in relation to gender and sexuality. Like many people who grew up in a small English suburban town, the entire ritual of going out drinking in bars and clubs could be pretty tense and oppressive, and seemed to revolve around trying to either fuck or fight, or trying not to be fucked and/or not to be fought, depending upon your gender. And this pressurised dynamic becomes your social life, your way to relax, to have fun and to let off steam. But it also becomes the environment in which you learn about social relations. The discovery of rave culture felt like a sharp contrast to this experience and a huge relief to be able to side-step this kind of pressure. I think it was formative in demonstrating something about how social relations can be better. Of course, drugs were a central part of this too. But it was about more than just drugs in a simple cause and effect way, and more about making yourself into the kind of person with the kind of mentality who would rather take those drugs and be in those spaces and enter those relations. So I think it was a fully transformative space. That is not to say that bad things never happened in rave scenes. I’m sure they did.24
Spatially, rave had begun as an inner city phenomenon in small exclusive clubs, swiftly shifting to the periphery (beyond the M25) of cities, and to rural situations, largely to escape the attentions of the police. At the beginning of the 1990s it came back to the inner cities in clubs and squats, the streets and again back out into dispersion to the edges of cities where warehouses or cheap venues were available. Interestingly this meant inner city kids exploring the rural countryside, much as their grandparents had in the late-19th and early 20th century. There were strong elements of suburban culture and many of the records and artists I knew of were working in Essex, Hackney, Brighton and Bristol. There was also a strong culture of anonymity, (“Origin Unknown”), secrecy and humour (“faceless techno bollocks”) as well as strongly decentralised elements. The internet, as I began to use it in the 2000s, was synonymous with the futurity of this rich subculture, but also was to be the means and infrastructure for the new working environment being developed.
Increasingly through the 1990s and especially after the Criminal Justice Bill had become the Criminal Justice Act those on the dole found themselves on the one hand under tougher conditions as a New Labour government introduced so-called “welfare to work” conditions and stronger disciplinary apparatus around benefits. On the other hand it began to be possible to find white collar casual or flexible work in London’s booming communications, financial services, advertising sectors, or couriering etc. As squatting became increasingly criminalised and rents rose the squeeze was successful and effective, as was the commercialisation of what had throughout the late-1980s and 1990s remained relatively self-organised form of culture (not that there was not money to be made in the grey economy of drugs, clubs etc.) It is this pressure that Aufheben summed up at the time as the transition from “Dole Autonomy” to the “The Reimposition of Work”. It marked a successful counter-revolution and one which still rolls on. Having successfully attacked the level of working class reproduction via welfare, successive governments have gone on to remove free education and other benefits which were an important source of youth autonomy and a barrier between those who hoped to stay out of wage labour as long as possible and the new flexibilised McJobs on offer.
The lack of an unemployed movement today is despite a relatively high level of non-representational political activity among those on the dole in recent years; indeed, the dole is the very basis for a number of the most vigorous direct action movements. The energies of the natural opposition to the attacks on benefits (the unemployed and the politically active) are currently being channelled in other directions. Workfare is being introduced in the UK, not because the unemployed have become “acquiescent”, but because a potentially powerful opposition prefers—misguidedly in our view—to fight over other issues or to seek individual solutions, rather than to defend the conditions that make some of their campaigns and activities possible.25
Leaving university at the end of the 1990s, one of the last students for whom the state provided the costs of tuition and a maintenance grant, I was immediately unemployed. In between periods on the dole I took a spate of casual jobs for catering companies who served business functions in the city and an early cyber cafe in Soho, the Global Cafe – where at the end of the night the whole bar staff would go raving. Living with my sister far east of central London in East Ham, on my way home from work late at night I called anonymous “party lines” and followed directions to illegal parties which took place in the deindustrialised belt of Canning Town, Stratford and Hackney, an area which in recent years was cleared for the 2012 London Olympics.
Towards the end of the 1990s I began to experience a convergence of the small media I had been following around at a small project space called the Info Centre. The space, run by artists Henrietta Heise and Jakob Jakobson, brought together Situationist-inspired journals, publications and small zines such as Inventory, London Psychogeographical Association, Association of Autonomous Astronauts, and Break/Flow. A low-key invitation card would announce “We have brewed beer”. The Info Centre hosted a reading room of these publications and others and I often visited to read back issues and pick up new issues and posters. I became close to the people behind Inventory, later writing for the journal and with the help of member, Damian Abbott, setting up a one-off one day pirate radio broadcast.26 Somewhere along the line I came across Mute and began finding texts by writers I followed turning up on their website. The collision of critical thought about technology, extra-parliamentary politics, music, film and art was much broader and accessible than the arcane and hermetic publications I had found interesting up to this point and there was a sense of an expanding field in which other reader/writers were making complex connections. In March 1999 I attended a performative street installation by Inventory called “Smash This Puny Existence”. The event took the form of an open newspaper/billboard whereby the group had flyposted an entire alley stretching in an L-shape between Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road and stood at either end of the street holding “Golf Sale” signposts directing passers by through the literary diversion. The same day and about half a mile down the road there was an all day “post-media flea market” called Expo-Destructo: post-media pressure.
27 Inventory, Mute, Break/Flow, Reclaim the Streets, Backspace and many other groups took part. In a sense the two events, a print publication which had taken to the street and a flea-market of internet sites and online cultures summed up the uncanny and unbounded dynamics being explored in media in London at the time. The convergence noted above had its epiphany in many ways in June the same year with the Carnival Against Capital (J18) coordinated by Reclaim the Streets (RTS).
Backspace, a media or hack lab, was the key link providing much of the technological infrastructure (web hosting and archiving) for many of these groups, and media artists, but also formed an important social and working space.28 The festive protest realised all the aspects of a disorganised street party with a very clear and universal target: capitalism, and in this case the very formidable edifice of finance capital as it had taken form in the City of London, London’s financial district. Though it was not until the following year I would be fully unemployed, working three jobs and studying and still only being able to afford to live at my sister’s house far from the centre of the city it was not a stretch of the imagination to connect the ascendency and confidence of the financial powerhouse of the City contributing to the squeeze on living conditions of London’s inhabitants. Moreover, the sense that we did not have any respect for the rules, wealth and power of this highly “secure” zone of the city using it as our party space, wrecking and disturbing it with weird frequencies and out of control bodies also felt like a visceral retort to high finance’s arid and sterile organisation of space. Whilst J18 put capitalism on the agenda, then and after there were serious questions about the residual lifestylism of the movement that led to this now renowned event. Aufheben strongly criticised the inability of this activist movement to confront the removal of its means of social reproduction—reform of unemployment benefit, housing benefit, criminalisation of squatting and so on. There is much to learn from the comparative weaknesses of recent activism in the new landscape of UK plc which was becoming patently clear in the movements’ disappearance in the 2000s. This is not to suggest that the tactics developed by RTS under the spell of the rave movement haven’t continuously been used to great effect.
29 Banishing a few essential critical remarks to the footnotes, I’d like to move from history to the present, considering what remains worthwhile discussing in the legacy I have sketched in the conclusion. 30
The situations we have seen developing in recent years with mass mobilisations in North Africa, Europe, US, South America and West Africa have shown some commonality with the cultural predilections of both rave and the political movements associated with it. The logic of occupation, reterritorialisation of space (take overs of the city and central urban spaces), music, poetry and diverse iterations of internet memes producing complex feedback between the street and the net. Often it has been both difficult and somewhat pointless to attempt to discern where culture ends and politics begins. These events have taken the form of youth revolts, but also, more generally, revolts of wageless life.31 They have activated a “surplus humanity” at different points in a class spectrum which encompasses the peripheral life of a casualised lumpenproletariat, elements of a factory proletariat for whom the social democratic class deal is now far from reciprocal and sections of the educated proletarianised middle class. Each successive revolt has thrown the existing stability of means, use, uselessness, misuse, contingency and chance into question. In a revolt when people use whatever is available “use” itself is changed. As in William Gibson’s famous dictum from the story Burning Chrome: “The Street Finds Its Own Use for Things.” A mainstream media approach has tended to pose new technology, particularly social media, as instrumental to these revolts but this dogma not only orientalises such movements but also tends to subdue more complex mediations.32
In the revolts of the present moment we are increasingly seeing the suspension of the normal ordering of objects and behaviours, new relations come to the fore and they find their material to hand. New uses derive from and extend new and unforeseen relations. What shapes do these apparently spontaneous iterations of “social form” comprise? When people use bread as media to communicate their lack of the basic foodstuff, when they point a baguette as a weapon at the cops, when looters use a mannequin leg to break a shop window to impose some asset relocation from below we are talking about media as impure means. Those means which amidst a capitalist crisis of valorisation make themselves available to use and misuse in these intense moments of social revolt, combination and communication. Whatever gets employed and distributes a given signal is in this sense media. This at least suggests that heretofore, media activists have posed the question of ownership of media falsely. All media (even in the conservative sense) are the product of social labour—the labour of those who work and not just “media workers”. For this process to be profitable in capitalism, media, like every other commodity, is separated at the site of production from those who made it. This initial separation is furthered in media distribution since through this process it becomes a thing owned by an individual. We literally do not get to enjoy the fruits, and wealth of our labour and we won’t until we have abolished capitalism. Therefore it is not necessary to pose what is “free” of capitalist control, but rather how and when we take these things back, how and when people self-mediate through devices, how they modulate the given signals. The myriad forms of post-production re-use of “media” are I would argue, some kind of surfeit which cannot either be disciplined to stay at home, nor privatised and sold. Obviously, from one perspective the surplus of energies and ideas which catalyse in social movements will almost certainly also later provide material for new forms of commodification. But, this is not necessarily the only way of seeing things, rather, in the new shapes invented in the cyclone of present revolts, such as the strange ritualised dancing and chanting of Al-Ahlawy’s football supporters, people turn themselves into communications devices, through mimesis they self-alienate and become machinic in order to open a space through which something new can pass.33 Similarly, post-rave dance movements such as footwork, turfing and swaggers take dance out of the dancehall into streets and urban spaces distributing their increasingly contorted forms of mimetic non-oral expression via online video channels.134 These moves, forms of organisation and self-composition describe novel concentrations and combinations of energies, they carry their own history and forms of self-reflectivity with them. They are the working out of our interminable present and its radical mediations.
3.According to a Wikipedia article, “Unemployment in Britain rose from 1,600,000 to nearly 3,000,000 between April 1990 and February 1993”, wikipedia.org (accessed 14/06/2014). Further detail and comparison between three recessions of 1980-81, 1990-91 and 2007-2008 can be found in—Jamie Jenkins (Office for National Statistics), “The labour market in the 1980s, 1990s and 2008/09 recessions”, Economic & Labour Market Review, Vol. 4 No 8, August 2010.
6.“It turns out that Graham Bright, MP for Luton who introduced the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act of 1990 (or, as he himself called it, the Acid House Bill) had links with the brewery industry. His bill, which criminalised unlicensed pay-in parties, was the brewery’s response to a massive drop in alcohol sales to young people. As soon as our trial was over the Criminal Justice Bill was rushed in—and this drove much of the dance music scene back into the hands of The Industry.” —“Spiral Tribe Interview: Mark Harrison interviewed by Neil Transpontine”, datacide.c8.com (accessed 14/06/2014)
7.“By the summer of 1991, London was no longer big enough to contain our parties, so we went west. It was there, out in the wilds, that we discovered the scattered remains of the free festival movement. By then we’d developed a clear notion that our mission was to unlock and open up spaces—take back the commons—or, if they wouldn’t give them back, we’d just set up new ones.”,
—“Spiral Tribe Interview: Mark Harrison interviewed by Neil Transpontine”, datacide.c8.com (accessed 14/06/2014); see also Tim Guest, “Fight for the Right to Party”, The Observer, Sunday 12 July 2009. (accessed 27/03/2014)
8.The extent of this repression is documented in Spiral Tribe’s “Calendar of Harassment 1991-1992”. An example, “April —Spiral Tribe hold a party in a disused Warehouse in Acton, West London. Police turn up in full riot gear. People barricade all the exits and the police use a JCB and sledge hammers to demolish a wall. Eventually storming the building beating people and making them lie face down on the floor. Over 100 people are injured. During the mayhem an ITV reporter turns up but it so freaked out by what he sees that he leaves immediately.”
—A4 photocopy distributed circa 1993. The text is reproduced in Tomislav Medak & Petar Milet (Eds.), The Idea of Radical Media, Zagreb: Multimedijalni Institut, 2013.
9.“I look back on the summer of 1989 and really what I see is a vista of money, there was masses of it and it all ran around in braces and stripy shirts and they were yuppies.”—Meredith Etherington-Smith, Deputy Editor of Harpers & Queen (1989) quoted in Summer of Rave, Documentary, youtube.com (accessed 14/06/2014) For unemployment figures in 1993 see footnote 3 above.
10.John Eden tells an overlooked history of the initial hostility between dancehall reggae culture and the new craze for “Acid”—“London Acid City: When Two 8’s Clash”, uncarved.org (accessed 14/06/2014)
16.Matthew Collin, Altered State: the story of ecstasy culture and acid house, London: Profile Books, 2010 p.105.
23.Anon, in conversation, 2013-14.
26.Craig Martin and I conceived of this project in response to an invitation from Cubitt’s curator Polly Staple. Typically none of us knew anything about the radio equipment that Damian helped us install on the roof of the gallery—cubittartists.org.uk (accessed 14/06/2014)—The idea to work with radio came straight from my teenage suburban experience of listening to radio pirates and a performance Inventory had put on and I reviewed for Mute, one of my first written articles and the first for Mute.
28.I’d come across Backspace a few times in this period, especially since many of the rudimentary, text and animated gif-heavy sites I visited linked off from Backspace’s home page, but probably with not much of an idea what it was until I started visiting the physical space just before it closed. One more important spatial dynamic to note was Backspace’s proximity, just near to Tower Bridge, to both central London, south and East London. A quick look at bak.spc.org/ will give you access to an archive website pretty much as it was in 1998/1999.
29.The following pair of articles reflect an interesting struggle over the forms of authenticity attributed to music in a recent protest situation: Paul Mason, “The Dubstep Rebellion”, 2010. bbc.co.uk (accessed 14/06/2014), Dan Hancox, 2010, “This is our Riot Pow”, dan-hancox.blogspot.de (accessed 14/06/2014). The Deteritorrial Support Group’s text, “All the Memes of Production” reflects some interesting problems for the transformation of a wayward cultural movement into a political movement, libcom.org
30.Excellent criticisms of J18 and the general tendencies explored by Reclaim the Streets-style activism can be found in Reflections on J18, afed.org.uk (accessed 14/06/2014) Particularly harsh critique pertains to the movement’s lifestylism, here attacked by Monsieur Dupont: “‘anticapitalism’ has predicated itself on the assumption of radical expressivity, the pivotal moment of any Reclaim The Streets event is the arrival of a smuggled in soundsystem. […] for them cultural manifestations in the streets are manifestations of resistance to capitalism. But radical expressivity is only a final layer of varnish on a product that has had a long trip down a conveyor belt, why should this last process of many be valued so highly? To advocate an anticapitalist culture in the belief that it can be ‘spread’ and will eventually overthrow capital is a confusion of cultural content for productive form; anti-capitalism is a fragment of pop culture and functions as such, it cannot escape its confines, even down to the repetitious and exclusive nature of its events.”—Monsieur Dupont, Nihilist Communism. theanarchistlibrary.org (accessed 24/06/2013). In the spirit of critical recovery Neil Transpontine’s writings cover a wide range of cultural and political events which crossed the period and fed into rave as a “movement”, or at least sometimes more, sometimes less, coherent moment:“These Laws: Up Yours!—Documents Relating to ‘Revolt of the Ravers’” collects a wealth of helpful documents related to the article, “Revolt of the Ravers”, accessible here: datacide.c8.com, further essays on a broad spectrum of dance and political culture are archived at: history-is-made-at-night.blogspot.com
31.“The destination of the unemployed, of the ‘reserve army of labour’, was to be called back into active service. The destination of waste is the waste-yard, the rubbish heap.” “The production of ‘human waste’, or more correctly wasted humans … is an inevitable outcome of modernization”; “refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants’ are ‘the waste products of globalization’.”—Zygmunt Bauman quoted in Michael Denning, “Wageless Life” New Left Review 66, November-December, 2010. p.96.
32.“The question is not whether the net produces liberation or subjugation: since its creation, it has always been producing both things. That’s the net’s dialectics, one aspect is always together with the other, because the net is the form capitalism has taken nowadays, and capitalism itself is the contradiction in process. […] Under capitalism, everything works like this: consumption sets free and enslaves, it brings about liberation that is also new subjugation, and the cycle starts over on a higher level. […] struggle should consist in fostering practices of liberation to be played against the practices of subjugation. This can be done only if we stop considering technology as an autonomous force and realize that it is moulded and driven by property relations, power relations, and production relations.”—Wu Ming, “Fetishism of Digital Commodities” wumingfoundation.com (accessed 14/06/2014)
34.Chicago footwork, youtube.com and youtube.com (accessed 14/06/2014); Oakland Turfing, youtube.com and youtube.com (accessed 14/06/2014); Paris Swaggers, youtube.com (accessed 14/06/2014). For an apt politico-poetic analysis see, Commune Editions,
“Elegy, or the Poetics of Surplus”.