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Travess Smalley
Video still from 'Soft Light Blend' by Travess Smalley

How rave is influencing a new generation of artists

As part of rave day on Dazed, we celebrate the modern wave of rave-influenced art that's getting gallerygoers’ hands in the air

Francesca Gavin, our visual arts editor, is opening E-Vapor-8, a show of rave-inspired art, tomorrow in Sheffield. To celebrate, we're devoting a day on Dazed to the art and music of smiley romanticism. Elsewhere, we have films and mixes inspired by the movement, but here, we present her original print feature, which appeared in the May 2012 issue of Dazed & Confused. 

Remember the first time you saw images of cultural rebellion? When rumours of illegal hedonism passed into your consciousness? Those first glimpses of dissent and resistance? For a generation of artists, those moments all revolved around rave. 

A number of young artists are now creating video works, paintings, online art, installations and sound pieces that allude to rave. There is no hierarchy of reference – everything is here. The surface glare of rave vocals, the speed of imagery and sound, the infantilist fashion of happy hardcore; iconic smiley faces, fractal imagery, hypercolour fluorescents, the samplestyle editing processes, pirate radio, found footage of dancing and parties… From Aleksandra Domanovic’s 19:30 project to Lucy Stokton’s videos, Daniel Swan’s animations to Travess Smalley’s paintings, rave is resonating today.

“Rave would have gained a quasi-mythical status in these artists' imagination – so it’s not surprising that now it is a source of inspiration” – Ellen Mara de Wachter

These artists are also responding to contemporary art history – people like Mark Leckey, Jeremy Deller and collaborators Cory Arcangel and Frankie Martin. “I think that Leckey and Deller in particular are very inspiring to young artists,” Ellen Mara de Wachter, curator at the Zabludowicz Collection, says, “because they have addressed the themes of music, dance, resistance and liberation for years, and have achieved critical and commercial success. Leckey’s sculptures and videos make clear and striking statements, which are his own ideas about culture, influences and high and lowbrow culture.”

For de Wachter, who has exhibited rave–referencing artists like Hannah Perry, Anthony Green and Matt Stokes, time makes the heart grow fonder. “(These artists) first heard about rave through older members of the family, or through word of mouth, rumour or press reports about the illegal aspects of raves,” she says. “It would have gained a quasi-mythical status in their imagination – so it’s not surprising that now it is a source of inspiration.” However, she is keen to point out that “nostalgia is not enough to make a work of art – it has to be given bite.” 

It’s logical that early 90s technology makes particular sense to artists now. The DIY music culture of the early 90s was the aural equivalent of how people make art (and everything else) today that engages with technology and the internet. As Altered State author Matthew Collin says: “From its outset this was a DIY movement. The first house and techno tracks were made by people who teased new sounds out of cheap and sometimes obsolete electronic equipment. They were making it up as they went along, using the limited resources they had to create something new... Musically, new forms of expression were constantly being invented and it was that thrill of discovery which helped to catalyse the evolving scene.”

“Operating underground, and often outside the law, the scene was quick-witted, creatively agile and celebrated change” – Mark Harrison

The computer created visuals that accompanied music culture – rave graphics, party flyers, fractals – are being re–positioned as precursors to contemporary art experimentation. “The smiley face is an obvious example,” de Wachter observes. “But there’re also more subtle or conceptual signifiers of rave – such as the desire for euphoria, community, liberation – which are relevant today more than ever, in our increasingly restricted society where social gatherings are more heavily monitored and discouraged than ever in living memory.” 

Interestingly, the drug references of the time have gone – or “E–vapor–8”ed, to play on the name of Altern8’s 1992 track. Instead, we are left with the essence of a moment. Spiral Tribe founder member Mark Harrison, who wrote a history of the scene, "A Darker Electricity", says: “Ecstasy and other psychedelic drugs may have opened people’s hearts to the possibility of a sharing, caring community, but it was not just an intoxicated dream. The reality was reaffirmed by newly available technology. No longer were people ‘punters’; people were participants, something that challenged old hierarchies and generated an incredibly optimistic energy. In the late 80s and early 90s there was a sense that cyberpunk fiction, computergenerated fractal imagery, electronic dance music and a rise in interest in computer hacking was heralding a new subculture. Operating underground, and often outside the law, the scene was quick-witted, creatively agile and celebrated change.” 

Those utopian ideas are unsurprisingly inspirational two decades later, when the expression of freedom within the virtual, let alone the physical, world is in question. One generation’s SOPA is another’s Criminal Justice Act. Early rave culture provided a model for democratisation of culture, just as the internet has provided for visual art. And putting politics, utopian dreams and cultural history aside, it’s also just about having a really good time.