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Skepta’s DYSTOPIA987, Manchester International Festival
Skepta’s DYSTOPIA987 at Manchester International FestivalPhotography Jordan Hughes

How Skepta built his futuristic rave fantasy, DYSTOPIA987

The ambitious, immersive production recently debuted at Manchester International Festival

There aren’t many cities in the UK with a clubbing history like Manchester, which stretches back from the Northern Soul era and the world famous Haçienda through to recent iterations of rave and dance culture like the Warehouse Project. This legacy was evoked last weekend with DYSTOPIA987, a collaboration between Skepta and Manchester International Festival that captured the tenets of old school illegal rave culture while showcasing a euphoric vision of the future.

Details about DYSTOPIA987 were scarce ahead of time. Manchester International Festival promised an event that would transport revellers into a “deep, dark, radical, and riveting” world, but offered little other details about how this would actually play out. True to its illegal rave theme, it was hosted in an industrial warehouse and the location was kept secret, only revealed via text message on the day. Inside, the team created a unique take on what entertainment would look like at the end of the world, mixing poetry, fashion, music, and technology – the latter of which made it one of the more ambitious live performances this year. In the same summer that Stormzy forged links between UK rap and the art world with his headline Glastonbury performance, grime has once again been given a space to showcase the most ambitious ideas.

By now, we know all about Virtual Reality (VR), and we’re acquainted with Augmented Reality (AR), but this event hinged on their slightly younger cousin, Mixed Reality (MR). Unlike VR and AR, where you’re either entirely immersed in a digital space or digital objects are layered on to your real environment, MR merges real and virtual worlds. For Skepta, the ambition was to use tech that didn’t mean you were chained to a screen in order to enjoy the innovation.

The research and development behind the technology at the event was funded by the Audience of the Future programme. Delivered by UK Research & Innovation, the programme is the UK government’s £33m investment of public funding to grow the UK’s leading position in immersive experience production. “It wasn't like the things that we were funding were added on to the gig,” says Andrew Chitty, Challenge Director at Audiences of the Future. “The whole thing was a brilliant partnership that felt like we created a space where artists could be experimental again.”

“The vision came from Skepta,” says Gabrielle Jenks, Manchester International Festival’s Digital Director. “On day one, he was very clear about what he wanted to create and the world that he wanted to build. People are still trying to get their heads around what is possible. Most ways in which you can implement large scale mixed reality is via a phone or a broadcast screen, but he felt like that would take away from the energy and interaction for the event.” The festival brought in The Experience Machine, a creative design studio that has previously worked with Beyoncé, and Audiences of the Future, a research body trying to create a new blueprint for live gigs, to realise this vision – but how did it actually play out IRL?

True to form for the Northern city, grey clouds lingered overhead, having just given way to biblical rain, when I and dozens of other bucket-hatted attendees arrived at the meeting point that was texted to us. There was still a mood of excitement and anticipation as we stood waiting for something to happen, which only grew as we were ushered along on a 15-minute walk by performers telling us that tonight was about “connection”. It didn’t taper off even when we arrived outside a warehouse and everyone’s phones were taken away and stored in a locked pouch to prevent filming. “Don’t worry,” said one of the rave assistants. “You’ll miss your screens, but you’ll gain so much more.”

As we entered the huge warehouse, we were greeted by a voice: “Hel­lo. My name is Dambrin. Intel­li­gent Rave Software. I see you.” The poem written by award winning writer Dawn King continues, and was a formal introduction to the evening’s robotic rave overlord, and one with a subtle link to grime culture – Didier Dambrin was the creator of FruityLoops, the music production software that was instrumental to the genre’s sound. Entrance to the event space was conditional on a positive outcome from a full-body scan, which took place as you stood against a wall, with some actors turned away to amp up the pressure. Inside the first room you pass through, Tunnel A, you could walk around and discover a market space plastered with DIY signs: “FREE ENERGY, FREE H2O, FREE YOUR MIND, FREE YOUR EGO!” Revellers were given coloured tokens, which denoted which ‘tribe’ you would join at the end of the world. Blue tokens could be traded in for hugs and interactions with space-suited staff – but really, everyone wanted to be green, because that meant you could adorn your face with blinking strip lights, or wrap yourself in fairy lights. 

Some attendees were pulled from the crowd into a back room where they would go on an augmented reality adventure, while others watched through the window. Those who had got their hands on free headphones were given instructions daring them to interact and make eye contact with strangers. Guests held each other’s hands in the air, gazing into their eyes, smiling and dancing – all this, and they weren’t even on pills. The market area in Tunnel A was “really about learning to disconnect from your screens and learn to be human,” Jenks explains. “We wanted to encourage exchange, and an element of tribalism. Plus, you can’t just go straight into a rave at 7pm.”

Despite the ‘FREE’ posters, you could also drop some cash on merchandise made specifically for the event by Cyberdog, including £25 t-shirts and a fanny pack with an LED screen playing the words DYSTOPIA987 on an endless loop. Meanwhile, London-based hair stylist Keash braided people’s hair, adorning them with jewels. Including elements from the real-world party scene felt like stepping into a rave culture that already existed, and helped acclimatise the crowd for what would come in the final hours.

In the adjoining room, we were greeted by the pounding bass of Underworld’s “Born Slippy”. Overhead, a drone-like projector scanned the room, evoking the artwork for Skepta’s latest album, Ignorance is Bliss, by generating thermal-image videos of the audience and performers in real-time, and mixing them with lyrics and graphics. Finally, the audience was ushered into the last room, where Skepta performed above the crowd on a mental structure, a column behind him creating the illusion that the column behind him was changing shape. 

“I was sick of being in the rave with everyone on the phone telling everybody who wasn’t there how good it is,” Skepta told his disciples below. They’d embraced his vision, moshed to “Praise Da Lord” and “Shutdown”, and now their sweat was smudging their facepaint and loosening their tribal lights. All the complex tech, actors, and accessories had only heightened their experiences together, rather than hijacked it. The whole thing would have been perfect for Instagram.