Summer 2016: Going to a Berlin club is like stepping into a heady whirl of nostalgia, where spiky hair, chokers, baggy trousers and sportswear dominate the dancefloor. Designers from Cottweiler to Caitlin Price and Miu Miu have taken their style cues from Nineties club kids. But steeped as they are in wistfulness for an age they never knew – albeit with the peculiar form of curated hedonism typical of the Instagram generation – the kids are not alright. If rave was indeed the last great youth movement, as the exhibition “Energy Flash” at the M HKA in Antwerp asserts, little has remained of its spirit of bricolaged chaos.
The exhibition takes its title from the eponymous Joey Beltram track, and immerses the visitor in a flurry of hi-energy visuals, Aphex Twin videos and dance sentimentalism. For those who were part of this movement, the narrative runs, their world seemed like an alternative reality: 48 hour bursts of utopia, enveloped in a chemical haze and cheap lager, social divisions erased in the sweaty unison of bodies in an unventilated dance floor. Spontaneous assemblies charged with an anarchic energy, raves united informal political protest, novel forms of aesthetic expression and casual rejection of formal order, with each particular location – from the Gabber music of the Belgian club scene to Bristol’s jungle soundtrack.
Early rave hits like “The House of House” by Cherry Moon Trax and scene-making labels such as R&S Records are shown alongside loving displays of yellowed fliers and event guides. Presented like this, the artworks at times disappear into the maelstrom of objects and videos – but perhaps this is the precise intention of curator Nav Haq. After all, rave freely appropriated elements of Afro-futurism, hip-hop and Sixties hippie culture. And those who attended the raves may – or may not – remember the questionable psychedelic murals and intricate laser shows.
“Energy Flash” is an anthropological endeavour, dissecting the European rave scene of the Eighties and Nineties through its art, its music and its artefacts as well as contemporary documentaries and news programmes. In one corner a Roland TR-808 drum machine sits next to a shock report by a British newspaper; in another Ann Veronica Janssens’ light installation abuts Alexandra Domanovic’s collage of amateur videos of Serbian teenagers dancing. This disorder reflects the free-for-all nature of rave: prior to mobile phones and the internet, people found about these parties by phoning anonymous numbers and following mysterious convoys, or else through word of mouth. And much of this is translated into its postmodern aesthetics borrowed from an array of sources, too.
Moreover, Rave created spaces that dissolved the distinction between public and private land, if only for a day or two. Parties took place anywhere from caves to warehouses and fields; the only criteria for party for the selection of these venues was if the organisers could get away with it. In 1991, Hakim Bey’s seminal anarchist text “T.A.Z.: Temporary Autonomous Zones”, emerged as the theoretical manifestation of what every raver already knew: the dancefloor was a place where rules were suspended. Rave, it seemed, wasn’t just about getting high, but dissolving hierarchies.
“Energy Flash” dutifully documents the movement’s itinerant nature. Irene de Andres photographs of parties in derelict Ibizan bullrings paint a picture of the island’s dance scene that’s a million miles away from the commercial mega-club complex it’s become. Elsewhere installations of speaker stacks and lasers by Matt Stokes and Ann Veronica Janssens act as reminders that while it attempted to transcend social boundaries, rave was a material culture – an aspect that the show marshals through its fashion focus.
Walther van Beirendonck clothing designs remain striking. A member of the Antwerp Six, the group that revolutionised Eighties fashion, van Beirendonck was also one of the goto European rave designers, with his face-masks, bright colours and use of rubber and neoprene quickly becoming scene staples. Eventually, this came full circle when he named his 1989 collection “Hardbeat”, covering his models in neon fake fur, knitwear and knee-length platform boots.
At times, Energy Flash appears as Gesamtkunstwerk, and for the uninitiated, this can be daunting. Nonetheless, while the exhibition aims to be an exhaustive documentary of the – mostly European – rave movements, and certainly presents a series of entertainingly immersive environments and nostalgic flashbacks, it can only be a meagre substitute for the chaotic improvisation that characterised the era. Still, it conveys some of the anarchist mindset and politics that lay at the heart of the movement – a welcome primer for the next generation of ravers.
“Energy Flash – The Rave Movement” takes place at M HKA – Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, until 25 September 2016