You can keep your nostalgic club nights – in my 50s, I’ve discovered the magic of the rave | McKenzie Wark


What greets me as I step through the portal is fog so thick I can’t see anything but shimmering blue. Welcome to the rave. We’re at an “undisclosed location” somewhere in Brooklyn. Or is it Queens? Somewhere in here is the source of the noise, this delightfully dense, hard techno, punctuating the blue. When my eyes adjust, I might be able to find it.

I came out as a trans woman in my 50s, about five years ago. I needed a way to shake the most stubborn and obtuse residues of gender dysphoria out of my body. I found raves. I’d been around this world in the 1990s. I knew what to expect, there in the blue fog. I knew how to pack a rave bag. What substances pair well with what sounds.

Nobody knows where the meaning of the word rave came from. Music critic Simon Reynolds believes it might have been a gift of immigrants from the Caribbean to postwar Britain. It was popularised in the north of England in the Thatcher years – the years of industrial decline – as a name for all-night, all-morning warehouse parties usually fuelled by techno and ecstasy.

In New York, techno is the soundtrack to a lot of nightlife cultures. The ones that interest me are pocket havens for queer and trans people. There are clubs where we’re not anomalies. But it’s the raves I like best. Legal clubs mostly shut by 4am – I’d rather get an early night, and then go dance as the sun rises over the light industrial junkspace that fringes the city.

I make my way through the writhing, sweating bodies, to my favourite spot up front, near the DJ, close to the sub-bass bin. In this New York scene, my fellow ravers are not from the industrial economy. We do service work, emotional labour, so-called “cognitive labor.” There’s nightlife workers who have knocked off work in legal clubs. There’s sex workers on their down time. In our different ways, we need the rave to shake work out of our bodies.

In some ways the raves I go to now are better than back in the day. The sub bass has become bigger, fuller. You feel it shiver your bones. DJs have more tracks to select from. You can make a pretty good dance track on a laptop, which removes music production from the tyranny of expensive gear and gatekeepers’ tastes. There’s no money in it, but then there never was.

The more interesting raves are publicity-shy. It’s not an exclusive world, but it’s not for everyone. It is wary of tourists, of those who would come as if it’s a show put on for them to consume. It is wary of gawkers treating it like their walk on the wild side. It’s for those who come to share their energy, their moves, who know how to handle themselves. At a good rave everyone puts their phone away. Taking photos for Insta is considered very bad form.

Most of my generation prefer to go dancing to the music of their youth. I’m not one for nostalgia. I’ve only been myself as this gender for a few years. Techno doesn’t really invite nostalgia anyway. It began as the sound of history breaking. For me, today’s techno is the sound of my body breaking free.

Techno started as Black music from Detroit; a soundtrack from the poster city for the collapse of western industrial capitalism. Its first exposure to the nightlife world was via Black gay clubs in Chicago. There’s a resonance between British and American histories here, the echo of the violence of race and the exploitation of class. The slave system in the American south grew the cotton for the mills of the English north. By the 1980s, the factories on both sides of the Atlantic were disappearing, taking their mass consumer future with them. It was necessary to imagine, in sound, in dance, a different future.

In Berlin, too, the rave scene was born out of the collapse of an industrial system: the Eastern bloc. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the euphoria was short lived. Young Berliners were left to invent a culture from the ruins. They found techno, and the dance of abandon in the spaces of the former East Germany.

These days the Berlin techno clubs are a global tourist attraction. The legendary British raves fell to police repression. Black producers in Detroit saw their innovation stolen, as techno became a global dance music business where a bunch of seemingly identical bald, white dudes gather all the money and fame. Maybe today’s raves are to the late information age what the previous ones were to the end of the industrial age.

In my book Raving, I wanted to leave behind the language habitually applied to this world. The rave is not liberation, resistance, transcendence, utopia or therapy. It evades those cliches. It’s a collective, aesthetic experiment that chimes with our times. It calls for a different language for a different life. It is also part of a wider art of constructing situations where we can reduce surveillance, consumption, the hustle. Find forms of collective joy. Or if not joy, ways to endure the pain of this dying world.

McKenzie Wark is the author of Raving, published by Duke University Press. She teaches at the New School in New York City

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