Sweet Harmony: Rave|Today

Philly Adams and Kobi Prempeh (curs.)
London, UK: Saatchi Gallery, 12 July – 14 September 2019.

Chris Christodoulou

University of Westminster (UK)

Described by the Saatchi Gallery as a “revolutionary survey of rave culture”,[1] Sweet Harmony: Rave|Today appears at a bittersweet time for UK underground dance music. Thirty years after the Second Summer of Love, the Conservative Party is the best part of a decade in power, neoliberalism continues to dominate the political discourse and free parties emitting soundtracks characterised by “a succession of repetitive beats”—as described by Section 63 of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act—continue to be outlawed.[2] An added layer of poignant incongruity comes with the staging of a show about a music-driven countercultural movement at an established cultural institution such as the Saatchi Gallery. The event may appear to celebrate the sounds, imagery and attendant lifestyles of rave culture, but the controlled gallery setting diminishes any sense of its “revolutionary” otherness. Sweet Harmony is a prime example of gallerification; the event marks the transition of rave culture from a resistant form of mass participation—arguably the last great youth movement to emerge from outside, or at least the margins of, mainstream culture—to an event whose value is shaped by its status as a curated artefact.

Nevertheless, the attempt of curators Kobi Prempeh and Juan Rincon (Voltage and SCI-Arc) to capture an “authentic” visual commentary resonates in the exhibited work, mainly comprising multimedia room installations and large-scale photography. The images are a mixture of journalistic and personal approaches which articulate key aspects of rave’s diverse musical and social milieu: photographers Derek Ridgers and Matthew Smith’s images of enraptured figures and crowds at key parties like Spiral Tribe and protest marches capture the political spirit of rave culture’s impulse for social resistance; former Time Out nightlife editor Dave Swindells and filmmaker-photographer Ewan Spencer illuminate the weekender hedonism of inner city clubland with images of brand-conscious metropolitan dancers in sweaty reverie, while artist-filmmaker Vinca Petersen and author Molly Macindoe’s depictions of transformed warehouses and rave-bound journeys point to the psychogeographic motivation underscoring long voyages to far-flung rural sound-systems, along with rave’s reterritorialisation of abandoned spaces in post-industrial towns and cities.

Anna-Lena Krause’s post-club portraits are the only images to feature posed subjects, but the figures’ individuated self-consciousnesses mark a revealing contrast to the carefree togetherness suggested by photographs that were mostly taken in the pre-Internet age. The relatively limited sense of connectedness offered by online culture has arguably diverted much of rave’s radical communality, which, not so long ago, only seemed to accompany the liminal experience of mass, all-night dancing at a dance event or festival. In this sense, a feeling of melancholy pervades Sweet Harmony; whether you were there or not, it is hard to avoid feeling nostalgia for the anarchy and anonymity exemplified by rave culture’s pre-Criminal Justice Act era. It is an illuminating irony then, that the Act itself is barely mentioned; unsurprising perhaps, given the Saatchi brothers’ involvement in multiple election campaigns for the Tories who introduced the bill that preceded it.

The immersive experience promised by Sweet Harmony’s organisers is somewhat reinforced by the Vinyl Hunter shop in the centre of the gallery, where a DJ mixes dance music classics live alongside the opportunity to actually buy vinyl. Another impressive feature of this space is the large wall of flyers, where the iconography of posters featuring DJ line-ups and contemporaneous graphic styles evoke a sense of scale and period as much as any of the more artistically elaborate exhibits. However, the sense of dance culture’s mainstream co-option is jarringly illustrated by the Spotify-branded listening stations in the “Play room”, featuring contemporary EDM rather than music from the acid house and rave eras. Corporate sponsorship and underground dance music make uneasy bedfellows and the presence of a music-streaming giant like Spotify feels antithetical to the rave ethos that the exhibition purports to commemorate.

There is much for ravers to revel in at Sweet Harmony. At specific moments, the event captures the radical alterity and transformative bliss of what was an extraordinary period of British youth culture. Curatorially, its content and spatial organisation articulates a subjective and temporal disorientation that seemed so dangerous to the political and cultural establishment in the late-1980s and early-1990s. Unfortunately though, the event carries the diversionary air of a historical sideshow. These are experiences of ecstatic timelessness that are presented as belonging to the past, despite assertions within the show itself of their enduring legacy (e.g. the subtitle, “Rave|Today”). Arguably, it would have been dishonest for the Saatchi Gallery to recount in a more complete way the political atmosphere of the period, given its owner’s role in helping to elect the political party who brought the Criminal Justice Bill into being. But, for all its reverence of the Second Summer of Love, the material presented in Sweet Harmony feels inconsistent with the idea of raving as a revolutionary experience, both in practice and in spirit.


[1] Saatchi Gallery. Sweet Harmony: Rave | Today [press release]. Available at: <https://www.saatchigallery.com/art/sweet_harmony.php> (accessed 30 July 2019).

[2] Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 c.33 Part V Section 63: Powers to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave. Available at: <https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1994/33/part/V/crossheading/powers-in-relation-to-raves> (accessed 30 September 2019).