No Screenshots on the Dance Floor
Goldsmiths, University of London (UK)
The lonely connectedness of smartphone addiction is a depressive hedonic reversal of MDMA festivity. Sociality is supervised by multiple embedded corporate platforms. We become our face, working 24/7 for communicative capitalism (Fisher 2016: 45).
Days merge together in static monotony. Without movement, time itself slows down: "all rhythms imply the relation of a time to a space" (Lefebvre 2004: 89). For those of us with the privilege to social-distance, distinctions between work and social life fold into the blurred temporalities of digitally augmented domestic space. It’s Friday night. I quit Microsoft Word, close my laptop and go to the kitchen to get a beer. Maybe I can chemically induce some kind of shift. I return to my desk and dim the lights, hoping to repurpose the space. I open up my laptop, where my social media feeds are saturated with footage from DJs' bedrooms. They have been all week. I scroll voyeuristically through countless options of mediated intimacy. Parties reimagined as content. Hunting for some kind of immersive experience, I try my best to ignore the clutter of memes and news reports vying for my attention. Normally I savour this journey—the expectant walks through nocturnal streets—some routes well-trodden, others unfamiliar. That unmistakable low-end throb that signifies proximity. Tonight, my only movement is through digital space. Eventually one option catches my eye and I click to enter full screen. In the stream, the figure of a DJ is only just visible, their silhouette contorted through digital manipulations. I spot a friend in the chat feed and we exchange a few messages, performing an ironic dance floor interaction. After spending most of my day hunched over a keyboard, my mind and body crave an altered state. I stand up and increase the volume on my speakers. The twisted euphoria of lysergic resonance fills the room. A sibilant hi-hat enters, and I sense a brief flash of energy course through me. There’s much to hear, but I miss the feeling of vibration. That sensory overload when I surrender my body as membrane. I dance for a moment, grateful but alone. "Alone together". Is this the future?
When COVID-19 lockdown measures forced the indefinite closure of nightclubs and venues around the world, fundamental questions were raised as to how the aesthetics, communities and economies of dance music culture could survive a physically despatialised context. The sounds and structures of electronic dance music are closely intertwined with the particular architecture of the nightclub space, combining to produce the setting for dance music’s uniquely intimate sensory and social formations. Physical space also plays a vital but often overlooked role in club culture’s delicate economy, in which the increasing monopoly of exploitative platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music has rendered live events the only feasible source of income. Where many nightclubs already inhabited a precarious position in gentrified, financialised urban space, the pandemic has served to emphasise club culture’s existent fragility.
As in many other spheres of life, dance music scenes responded to lockdown with a swift and comprehensive process of digital migration, using audio-visual streaming services as part of attempts to fill the social and economic gap left by closed venues and cancelled events. In certain cases, new media organisations emerged in direct response to the crisis. United We Stream started out by broadcasting live from venues across Berlin, but soon expanded to numerous cities around the world, using the streams to generate income for a "rescue fund to support clubs in difficulty". Existing platforms like Boiler Room adapted their previous service, moving to host broadcasts "direct from artists’ homes and private spaces". Outside of these more formalised services, countless DJs and collectives set up their own livestreams on Facebook, YouTube and Twitch, repositioning the "bedroom DJ" in a newly public light. Such was the number of streams that Resident Advisor adjusted their events listings to include the digital non-place, Streamland.
The speed of this transition from physical to digital space was borne out of necessity, and in many cases, revealed an inspiring sense of solidarity within and across localised dance music scenes and communities. At the same time, much of this shift can also be understood as a sudden and unexpected acceleration of processes that were already well underway in much of dance music culture. Over the last decade, the unstoppable rise of Boiler Room had already established the livestream as a ubiquitous component of contemporary club culture’s ecologies of production and consumption. In the early days of livestreaming, there was a conscious sense of separation between streams and events. Boiler Room’s original East London streaming parties took place on Tuesday evenings, while Dommune in Tokyo was set up to broadcast during the week, specifically to avoid clashing with the schedules of nightclubs. As Boiler Room expanded their operations, they began hosting stages at festivals, as well as broadcasting from existing events, including several ill-fated attempts to stream from sound systems at Notting Hill Carnival. Though such tendencies point toward an increasing blurring of the distinction between digital livestreams and physical events, the unique circumstances of COVID-19 presented the first moment in which livestreams were no longer a form of addition or augmentation, but rather a direct replacement of the live event itself. To be sure, long before the pandemic, streaming had already played a vital role in widening access to club culture. Despite dance music’s pervasive discourses of universality and togetherness, access to the club space has often been severely restricted by factors including physical ability, financial status and geographical location. In this sense, while livestreaming was for many already an important mode of communicating and experiencing electronic dance music, the pandemic created a singular context in which an entire global culture of digital events was constructed in replacement of any counterpart in physical space.
Part of this replacement has been about constructing emergency networks and economies of cultural production. Most livestreams are free to access but include provisions for donation, with funds channelled to charitable causes, place-based support schemes or specific venues and artists. Such strategies were a necessary response to crisis. Yet as Shawn Reynaldo pointed out during the early days of the pandemic, they were also indicative of "just how fragile the electronic music industry had already become" (2020). The rise of Spotify, music festivals and skyrocketing DJ fees created an impossible economy for the independent dance music scene, in which even the first few weeks of cancelled events under lockdown felt sufficient to trigger wholesale economic collapse. This climate exposes deep structural issues within dance music's internal economies and underscores the continued lack of meaningful state subsidisation for much of urban night-time culture. Where modes of night-time governance are gaining prominence in cities around the world, the vulnerability of independent clubs and venues during the pandemic has shown the extent to which nocturnal spaces still remain unrecognized for their contributions to urban public life. Municipal acknowledgements of the role of club culture in so-called "creative economies", culture-led "urban regeneration" and attainments of "global city" status rarely manifest into reciprocal or useful forms of support for local scenes and spaces. In this context, the recasting of electronic music culture as a donation economy pushes clubs and venues further into an already fragile matrix, in which remuneration for cultural production is considered a prize, not a right.
As well as aiming to fill financial gaps, club culture’s adoption of livestreaming during the pandemic has also been about finding ways to meet collective psychic and social desires. This sense of functional replacement has guided the formation of specific streaming events like Resident Advisor's Club Quarantäne, which was set up with a distinctly social purpose in mind. Alongside a fundraising aspect, it was conceived as an international online club: "offering people a place to interact with each other virtually, providing the connection that's lacking from our daily lives right now, and looking forward to a future when we will dance side by side again" (Resident Advisor 2020). Such virtual events undoubtedly provide a space for interaction in which dance music acts as some kind of binding agent. Yet where the production of what Luis-Manuel Garcia has termed "liquid solidarity" (2013: 242) is dependent on a combination of bodily co-presence, musical-sonic experience and spatio-temporal context, could attempts to reimagine such socialities in digital space serve to undermine much of what is unique about club culture?
If rave's ephemeral collectivity is the "aura" necessarily lost in any reproduction of the physical club space, digital approximations may function less as a pacifying replacement, and more as a faint and melancholic echo of loss. Again, this can be understood as an acceleration of existing trends. Over the years of their existence, Boiler Room have been criticised for contributing toward an individualised cult of the DJ. In contrast with archive footage from the early years of rave, which draws attention to the chaotic, pulsating euphoria of the crowd, Boiler Room's pervasive aesthetic has reimagined the archetypal representation of club culture as a static shot of the DJ booth. In this confined cinematic space, any visual narrative is limited to the twisting of knobs, the sipping of drinks and the performative but self-conscious swagger of those who have knowingly positioned themselves in the gaze of the camera. Livestreaming during the era of COVID-19 has distilled this aesthetic even further. United We Stream’s broadcasts from nightclubs depict eerie, empty rooms where lights flash and smoke machines billow around the lone figure of the DJ. Such an aesthetic captures a dystopian moment when spaces of shared social liberation were suddenly and radically redefined as spaces of potential infection. Safe(r) space is no longer about the regulation of behaviour, it is now determined by the wholesale absence of bodies. In these images of the present we can also catch glimpses of a possible future, in which such disorderly physical environments—already deemed a nuisance to urban life, but now with added viral risk—are reduced to sterile containers for broadcast, transmitting a lonely, nostalgic vision of impossible connection. With so much of our lives already experienced through laptop and phone screens, the physicality of clubs can constitute a vital manifestation of "other" space. They operate in spatial and temporal distinction from the increasingly fluid rhythms of everyday life, in which boundaries between work and leisure are collapsing beneath neoliberal logics of incessant flexibility. Where much of pre-pandemic night-time culture was already a threatened and undervalued component of urban life, we should be wary that the acceleration of livestreaming is never allowed to normalise any further incorporation of club culture into a flattened, technological sameness.
As coronavirus has driven more and more of our lives online, it has also proven an unprecedented opportunity for Big Tech. On the surface, club culture’s mass adoption of livestreaming has provided a versatile platform for artists, venues and scenes to sustain themselves mentally and financially during a moment of crisis. Yet hidden within discourses of preservation and expanded participation lies an exponential concentration of power among companies including YouTube, Facebook and Amazon (owners of the streaming platform, Twitch). So ubiquitous is their presence in our lives, it can be easy to forget that every livestream from the comforting intimacy of a DJ's bedroom is simultaneously a valuable commodity for data-hungry corporations in the intangible economy. It is already well-established that our listening habits are tracked, analysed and fed back to us via algorithms on Spotify and elsewhere. With the comprehensive reimagining of physical events as audio-visual streams, even the heterotopic immediacy and sanctified freedom of rave is morphed into a terrain of potential surveillance. Entry to Resident Advisor’s Club Quarantäne was accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek request for "no screenshots on the dance floor" (clubquarantaene 2020). This focus on individual responsibility—a carryover from pre-virtual contexts—distracts attention from the fact that the entirety of the event, including those in "attendance", is necessarily translated into the data flows of a multinational media platform. Of course, even the so-called electronic music "underground" is no stranger to pervasive corporate influence, as evidenced by the insidious creep of Red Bull in recent years. While Red Bull's logo was at certain points ubiquitous, almost to the point of invisibility, even this degree of normalised involvement pales in comparison to the ways in which the full diversity of global dance music events was suddenly hosted as livestreams via a tiny handful of corporate platforms. In the rush to sustain some semblance of normality, this drastic acceleration of Silicon Valley's existing omnipresence materialised as the only apparent solution to saving entire economies, cultures and modes of sociality during a moment of crisis. Via the most naked logics of capitalist realism, survival itself was presented as inextricably contingent on a dystopian concentration of corporate influence and surveillance.
Past catastrophes have shown us that what may be sold as exceptional can quickly and stealthily be established as the new normal. Club culture has been compelled to react quickly to the unique conditions of the pandemic in order to survive, but this moment of rupture and enforced stasis should also be harnessed as a time to reflect collectively on how this return to apparent normality might look, sound and feel. The new normal will be a contested space, emerging out of critique, imagination and struggle. Livestreaming and other digital tools have proven themselves a key component of club culture’s survival through the pandemic. What remains unclear at this stage is how this unprecedented digital shift may affect dance music culture's eventual return to physical space. Tech companies will be keen to exploit the unparalleled gains they have made during this period—how can vulnerable night-time economies and cultures be prepared for this? I would hope that the new modes of connectivity engendered by the pandemic can be mobilised into continued and expanded structures of solidarity. Some scenes have shown themselves more organised than others in this respect. How can this knowledge and experience be shared across space to strengthen local dance music scenes and communities? Organisations such as Berlin’s Club Commission and Club Futuro in Turin must be supported to emerge out of this crisis stronger than ever, such that they can inspire and inform similar models of organisation elsewhere. Through the work of such solidarity, night-time spaces need to be understood beyond economic frameworks, such that they can be recognised and equitably supported for their contributions to urban social and cultural life. As digital and virtual tools will be exploited in attempts to maximise the flexibility, efficiency and surveillance of labour, so should club culture materialise—when it is safe to do so of course—as a vital manifestation of shared physical space, in which alternative modes of community may be enacted, experienced and imagined.
Ben Assiter is a PhD student in the music department at Goldsmiths, University of London. His thesis focuses on London's electronic dance music scenes and spaces, exploring their relationship to contested notions of the night-time as cultural territory, economic category and site of urban governance. Ben is active in these scenes as a DJ and producer and performs internationally as a drummer.
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