The ttttssshhhhhh of a smoke machine breaks the silence as a red spotlight blinks to life, illuminating social distancing markers on a dancefloor polished smooth by the shuffling of feet. The soundsystem kicks into gear with an anthem by techno star Dave Clarke. But the DJ booth is empty, and the only ravers here are the ones frozen in time, trapped behind glass as photo displays.
This is Echoing Through Eternity, the pop-up museum exhibit currently showing at Fuse, a venue in the hip Marolles district of Brussels that has been serving its community for the last 100 years, first as a cinema and then a Latin discotheque before emerging as one of Belgium’s best techno clubs. The exhibition features slick posters, wacky flyers (rubber gloves, fake driving licences) and colourful photos from the club’s storied past. Most of the material has come from its own archive, but there are personal items here too, submitted by the club’s devoted community after an open call on social media. Starting with its LGBTQ roots, the exhibit winds through the main dancefloor, with a stop off at the DJ booth, and ends in a three-minute club simulation upstairs.
Curated by its own staff, many too young to remember the original club that opened in 1994, Echoing Through Eternity isn’t the only example of a European club trialing alternative routes through the pandemic, nor the only recent exhibition dedicated to club culture. British institutions like the Barbican, Design Museum and Saatchi Gallery have all reimagined dancefloors in their sober gallery spaces – a trend that continues with the V&A Dundee exhibition Night Fever: Designing Club Culture in May – and nightclubs have made gallery spaces out of their dancefloors. While the latter has allowed clubs to raise revenue during a period of enforced closure, the former has provided a space to celebrate and interrogate the cultural value of nightlife.
Last September, after six long months of silence, Berghain in Berlin – regarded by many as the world’s most significant nightclub – reopened as a gallery with an exhibition featuring an ambitious 115 works made by artists based in the city. Berghain’s main dancefloor was transposed into the red light district of Lagos by Nigerian sound and installation artist Emeka Ogboh; his piece, Ayilara, was made from field recordings captured by the artist while living in Nigeria’s biggest city. As you walked up the stairs to the dancefloor, you could also hear the robotic whizzing of an automated acoustic piano banging out one solitary note at a time from the Klo Bar toilets. This was the sound of Attune for Piano-1, a generative composition by one of Berghain’s resident DJs, Sam Barker.
Berghain has hosted various exhibitions since opening in 2004; its earliest featured works made exclusively by its own staff, including the infamous doorman and photographer Sven Marquardt. The club’s owners Norbert Thormann and Michael Teufele have been commissioning and displaying art in the venue since the beginning, from the intimate photography of Wolfgang Tillmans, usually looming over Panorama Bar, to Piotr Nathan’s epic mural that used to occupy the entrance hall. Made from 171 square aluminium panels, the mural, titled Rituals of Disappearance, was carefully dismantled in 2017 and sold off piece by piece to make room for the club’s newest dancefloor, Säule. Halle am Berghain, another space within the concrete maze of the former Berlin power plant, has been the site of a range of immersive audiovisual experiences in recent years; this summer, it will feature an installation by Danish ecological artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen.
Such interventions can provide relief from the current pandemic-imposed stasis – but this doesn’t address the social, political, psychological and physiological loss of the dancefloor. Pilot PC, a participatory theatre piece by Rotterdam-based social choreographer Connor Schumacher, is one such attempt.
For 33-year-old Schumacher, raving is about “practising expansive progressive values”, and learning how to be (better) humans together. These views have been refined through participation in Empowering Dance, a European research project into the interpersonal and learning skills developed through regular dance practice. “If experience and memory and ideas and values are stored inside the body,” Schumacher explains, referencing embodied cognition theory, which also informs his work, “then inside the rave space, you are shaking all of your shit up.”
Carefully devised with the social restrictions in place in the Netherlands at the time, Pilot PC simulated rave – safely – inside the theatre space last year. Featuring motivational “lyric videos’’ and a combination of smoke, lights and reflective surfaces to imitate the club environment, plus a banging playlist replicating the peaks and troughs of a good set – and the warmups and downs of a proper aerobic workout – Pilot PC offered one of the few chances to socially dance in the Netherlands in 2020. The project was just gaining momentum when theatres were also made to close as part of the country’s strictest lockdown phase to date.
Pilot PC evolved from Schumacher’s Zoom Raves, rave-inspired dance sessions open to all with internet access, that have once again replaced Schumacher’s physical community dance practice. “It’s like I have a relationship with rave, and now I have to be in a long-distance relationship,” he says. “I’m not willing to break up just because I can’t be there physically.”
Besides offering a glimpse at rave’s full multisensory power, Pilot PC also addressed some of the social politics of clubbing via an opening “TED-talk” speech, where participants were primed to be mindful of their own bodies, but also about sharing the space with others. For Schumacher, how we behave within the club space prepares us for how we behave outside the club space.
Exhibitions like Echoing Through Eternity and pieces such as Pilot PC can help preserve while forging deeper relationships with club culture; they stimulate reflection, which could be used to navigate the present stasis and allow for more conscious club practices to emerge post-pandemic. Even before Covid, club culture was plagued with issues from soaring DJ fees and sexual harassment to the industry’s outsized carbon footprint and the loss of venues on a massive scale. Reviewing the scene with critical distance, through the medium of an exhibition, may be what saves it for future generations.
This process has also been happening inside traditional museum spaces. Take the recent Electronic exhibition at the Design Museum in London. Originally conceived, pre-pandemic, for the Philharmonie de Paris, in the context of the current club crisis the exhibition has become even more radical and vital. “We didn’t want to create a memorabilia exhibition,” explains its curator Jean-Yves Leloup. “The idea was to create a kind of giant installation, which doesn’t really imitate the club or the rave scene, but reflect the aesthetics of the immersive feeling you can have at a party.”
Electronic achieved this through the very architecture of the exhibition, made up of metal and wooden structures reminiscent of festival staging, created by spatial design specialists 1024 Architecture. There was also a 127-track playlist that accompanied the exhibit, which you could listen to on headphones as you made your way through the museum. Around five hours of dance music, ranging from disco to contemporary bass, was compiled into 11 themed mixes by French DJ and producer Laurent Garnier.
“I always remember my rave and club years as a kind of immersive aesthetic feeling, not just a social gathering,” recalls Leloup, who was involved in the early French rave scene as an influential radio DJ and journalist. He also curated one of the earliest major exhibits about rave culture, Global Tekno, held in the American Center in Paris in 1995. With several exhibitions, articles, books and years of dancefloor encounters behind him, Leloup is the ideal spokesperson for reimagining club culture through the prism of the art world.
Inventive immersive tricks aside, the obvious criticism of putting club culture into a museum is that they can never provide experiences close to the inherently emotional and deliciously unpredictable act of finding and losing yourself on the dancefloor. “Where’s the art? Where’s the performance? Where’s the vitality? The whole show feels like a nightclub when the smoke has cleared, the dancers have gone home and the sick’s being cleaned up,” Time Out art critic Eddy Frankel wrote of the 2019 Barbican exhibition Into the Night, which recreated nightclubs from visual art.
Others might argue that raves, often itinerant and messy affairs, sit in opposition to the very concept of a bricks-and-mortar institution, particularly when you consider those institutions’ politics. Sweet Harmony, an exhibition of classic rave material, was held at London’s Saatchi Gallery in 2019 – that the gallery’s founder created advertising campaigns for Thatcher’s Tory government, who then cracked down hard on the scene in the late 80s, was an irony not lost on some bitter attendees.
At the original Electronic exhibit in Paris, Leloup recalls ex-ravers in their 40s, 50s and 60s turning out with their children, or grandchildren, eager to share with them their past experiences. There were also 20 to 30-year-olds escorting parents in a similar gesture of empathy. It’s this ability to communicate across generations that is perhaps the best argument for museum-ifying club culture. But ravers must not get trapped behind the frame for ever, like those in Fuse’s exhibition: any perspective gained must be brought to bear on sustainably funding, diversifying and enriching club culture. We still need somewhere we can shake all our shit up.