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Digital Euphoria – Summer 2021
Zayra CerdaPhotography Nick Haymes

Digital Euphoria: How club culture learned to thrive online

From digi-drugs to Neurodungeons, amid the chaos and claustrophobia of COVID, people found groundbreaking ways to party, raise hell, and find themselves online

Taken from the summer 2021 issue of Dazed

Pixellated youths bobbing around fantasy spaces. A goth kid hovering mid-air on a gigantic dragon. A stage that is quite literally made of rainbows. This is what you saw when you entered nu:cenosis festival, a 15-hour digital rave set within an online ‘metaverse’. Described by one awestruck reveller as the “best non-club club experience ever”, the event took place in April of last year, across five stages that resembled floating islands on 00s-era Super Smash Bros. Once inside, partygoers could hop between stages via a rainbow vortex, the gamified experience serving as a virtual escape from reality.

The effects of the pandemic on our digital lives came slowly, then all at once. The digital became a source of joy – for many, their only source of joy. Removed from real-world limitations of race, sexuality, age, wealth and location, people could explore themselves and their identities without having to worry about how it might come across in their real lives – because, frankly, there wasn’t a ‘real life’ to be had. First it was the early days of Zoom quizzes and FaceTime. Lost friendships were rekindled through group chats as people struggled to make sense of the disruption caused to their daily routines.

But as our default modes of being began to shift away from the real world and towards our computer screens, a more organic way of interacting online began to emerge. TikTok, already a huge part of youth culture before the pandemic, took on new significance, with thousands flocking to its feeds in search of new forms of connection. Internet subcultures boomed and found new homes on sites such as Discord and Clubhouse. Teens made music in their bedrooms and scored record deals without even having to step outside the door.

“Virtual events are so much more open to anyone who, for any reason – finances, age, social anxiety etc – may not be comfortable at, or able to, attend a show in person,” says umru, a musician signed to PC Music and online festival organiser. “As performers, there’s a lot more freedom too. There’s no need to sell a certain number of tickets or cover travel expenses so we could book acts who might not have the ‘pull’ required to play a real show.”

No longer just the domain of dedicated online circles, digital raves have become the new normal as nightlife communities search for ways to bridge the clubbing-shaped void created by the pandemic. Using the limited tools at hand – open-world video games like Minecraft and Fortnite, avatar-based social networking sites or video conferencing platforms like Zoom, these online spaces function as sites of community during a time where social interactions are limited to individual households, established relationships and bubbles. Sure, there are no pre-night jitters or sneaky heists through side doors, but the experience sends us back to when the internet was a site of boundless experimentation and play.

This sense of possibility was everywhere at nu:cenosis festival, where the room filled quickly for Spanish artist Bartolomé’s set over on the Neurodungeon stage. “I had to sign a contract giving away some vital organs before they let me in,” joked a commenter who managed to beat the rush. On screen, Bartolomé, or their avatar, was flanked by two cartoon clouds. Neon-pink lightning bolts speared out in all directions, erupting into a prismatic palette that served only to enhance the euphoria. Occasionally, PayPal links urging attendees to support the performing artists appeared in the chat box as commenters from all across the world reacted to the set at warp speed.

“Virtual events are so much more open to anyone who, for any reason – finances, age, social anxiety etc – may not be comfortable at, or able to, attend a show in person” – umru

A few hours on, Bala Club founder Kamixlo took to the stage. Dressed in giant dragon wings, he played an industrial set of swinging dembow rhythms and pitched-up vocals that looped over and around ghoulishly. “When lockdown first started and I saw these virtual parties become a thing, it wasn’t something I was interested in,” he recalls of his initial reluctance to take his music online. “A lot of the parties were done via Zoom and, personally, I find it mad-awkward DJing at home on a webcam – I feel awkward DJing as it is.”

He describes IMVU, the social networking site and online metaverse which hosted the festival, as an alternative to the multi-screen chaos of video conferencing apps, which tend to feel unnatural, especially when there’s no crowd to bounce energy off. IMVU, in contrast, borrows from video games to offer imaginative and novel ways for users to engage with one another. Customising an avatar conjures the same giddy excitement as playing a video game, where the loading screen is a portal to a world teeming with possibilities. Hopping through the various stages, coordinating with friends and comparing outfits, is akin to running through a real festival – but unlike a real festival, IRL rules don’t apply. “I got to make my avatar cute as fuck. The multiple stages made it feel like a legit festival,” says Kamixlo.

The Lavapalooza online festival took place in August on Minecraft, a sandbox video game where players can create whole worlds using rudimentary building blocks. (Sandbox games give players freedom to explore and modify their environments.) Featuring artists like 100 gecs, Hannah Diamond and Planet 1999, the event invited ravers to log in, create avatars and watch DJs play on blocky, 16-bit decks in woodland-themed festival grounds.

Minecraft offers a level of immersion that isn’t experienced at virtual concerts that are just video streams,” says Max Schramp, who founded Open Pit, a volunteer-run collective of event organisers that has been throwing festivals in the game since 2018. The collective was originally meant as a way for Schramp and his friends, a group of likeminded artists and DJs, to throw parties online. But when the pandemic saw thousands flock to its digital pastures in search of new ways to connect with one another, Open Pit started enlisting the help of its community to put on larger-scale events aimed at the public, including Lavapalooza.

“Obviously, during the pandemic, these virtual shows became everyone’s only option, and it allowed us to do some amazing things because there was so much attention,” says umru, an Open Pit member who helped organise the festival. “But we’ve been doing these events long before quarantine, mainly because the community of music producers and friends they developed from was so spread out around the world and it would be difficult for us to get together in one place.”

When the collective put together Square Garden, an in-game festival hosted by 100 gecs and featuring acts like Charli XCX, A.G. Cook with Kero Kero Bonito and Dorian Electra, Schramp and his friends spent countless hours transforming the server into a trippy cornucopia. The stage itself was modelled on the famed 100 gecs tree – or Gecca, as fans like to call it, after the band’s album cover on their debut 1000 gecs – while the festival site itself was crowdsourced, with Open Pit opening up the server to friends and performers a month in advance to take part in the building process. “Having a crowdsourced world is important to our events to really capture the community-built feel and not a curated, sterile experience,” Schramp explains.

“During the pandemic, these virtual shows became everyone’s only option, and it allowed us to do some amazing things...But we’ve been doing these events long before quarantine” – umru

For many young people who grew up playing Minecraft, the game also provides a sense of nostalgia; its servers double as a window back to simpler times before deadly global viruses and neverending news cycles. So, it’s unsurprising that digital natives are flocking to it for comfort when the real world feels increasingly alien and out of reach. “Minecraft was just at this very specific intersection of nostalgia and functionality where it was possible, though not easy, to build and host these events,” says umru.

What’s more, the game’s sandbox nature encourages users to explore a world without limits. Entering a festival like Lavapalooza, there’s an unbridled sense of adventure and limitlessness that encourages players to engage with their surroundings, whether that’s throwing yourself about in a virtual moshpit, playing one of the many mini-games scattered about the server, or visiting an in-game merchandise stall. Even in a virtual crowd, there’s something distinctly euphoric feeling when the bass drops and the chatroom explodes as Charli XCX plays a glorious, and equally nostalgic, remix of Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” with her own “Vroom Vroom”.

“It’s always been central to these events to build an inclusive space that just feels fun and open to everyone,” says umru, describing the sense of social mission underpinning his work with Open Pit. “Over the pandemic we’ve had endless conversations with brands and music companies looking to turn this into something profitable but ultimately we’ve realised it’s only worth the countless hours we put into those events if we’re having fun, volunteering our time to raise money for charity, and making something fun for our friends and community.”

On a more bespoke level, the digital party Antibody Club takes place on a game server built entirely from scratch by experimental artist group The Umbrella. Upon entry, partygoers find themselves in a strange lobby where they are given the dystopian invitation to “check your body at the door”. The screen goes dark and you find yourself in Times Square, only the billboards have been replaced with a live webcam feed of your face and the should-be bustling roads are completely empty. As you inch along past walls plastered with digital renditions of 90s rave posters and conspiracy memes, you find yourself in an alleyway where there’s a glowing orb with the label ‘Catnip’. You roll over it. Suddenly, the room is Technicolor and the walls are a hallucinatory wash of geometric shapes.

“Those are the digital drugs,” laughs Max Lauter, a member of the collective. Digital drugs are essentially filters that skewer the user’s perception of the map and convey the same visual effect as taking a mind-altering substance. “They allowed us a way to break up the narrative and really awaken someone’s attention. It becomes an experience they then want to share with others, deepening collective connection and exploration of the space.”

Similar to Minecraft festivals, Antibody Club uses a gamified experience to create a feeling of excitement and curiosity. Players move around as hovering webcam feeds and use keyboard controls to explore the club’s multiple areas, which include a dancefloor, a smoking area and a sunflower field for some late-night ambience. Proximity-based audio allows users to speak to and interact with other players nearby, in a similar way to real-life. “We wanted the user interface to provide easy control over the volume of music and volume of conversation, and easy ways to navigate a huge world,” says Chris Lunney, creative director of The Umbrella.

In contrast, Subculture LA takes place on video conferencing app Zoom. Unlike other parties on the platform, the night has managed to maintain its relevance over the pandemic, hosting weekly parties with headliners such as Pussy Riot and Dorian Electra with Rebecca Black, alongside night regulars like hyperpop singer Fantasyluv, DJ and performance artist Alice Longyu Gao, and Yung Skayda and Karm the Tool of pixellated rap-pop project XIX. Founded in 2019 by Tyler Shepherd and Gannon Baxter, the party – whose inner circle of friends can be seen on these pages – started as a physical night in LA before going virtual. “We had poured so much of our hearts and souls into getting Subculture off the ground pre-Covid it really felt like all that work was about to be destroyed,” they explain over email. “We were both working full-time jobs just to keep Subculture alive, so when we found out about nightlife closing indefinitely we felt extremely distraught. It felt like maybe it was time to give up, but instead of letting our dreams die we tried something.”

The night is queer first and foremost, but pushes people to explore themselves. “It’s centred around queer culture, but it’s truly something for anybody who’s willing to try it,” they say. On any given night you can expect to see a range of looks from across the subculture spectrum, from e-girls with neon-green hair and Hello Kitty merch to goths in gas masks and emos with fringes swept across their faces. “We don’t think it’s really about the labels surrounding each subculture, more than it’s actually just about people making friends and finding a community to feel like they’re a part of. Everyone wants to belong to something where they’re comfortable being themselves.” They note that lockdown “has pulled people out of themselves even further” aesthetically, especially now that “parties have gone digital”.

With anywhere up to 1,000 partygoers a week, each night is hosted by a different set of artists from around the alt scene. It has also acted as a springboard for many musicians who’ve emerged during the pandemic. Among them are emerging Swedish hyperpop star COBRAH and Brooklyn artist BAYLI, who collaborated with SOPHIE before the producer’s passing in January. Dorian Electra and Dylan Brady, key figures in the equally online hyperpop scene, perform regularly, and bring with them a host of young artists from Soundcloud and Discord. “It’s as close as we can get to live clubs for now,” says umru, who threw a Subculture night for his 22nd birthday in April, which saw the likes of Brady, Aaron Cartier, Fraxiom and DEBii headlining. “They’ve built up these unique and inclusive communities and allowed for a lot more experimentation among both artists and audience members who might not have had the same confidence to perform live or go to clubs in person.”

“We had poured so much of our hearts and souls into getting Subculture off the ground pre-Covid, it really felt like all that work was about to be destroyed. But instead of letting our dreams die we tried something” – Tyler Shepherd and Gannon Baxter

What’s more, listening to Subculture’s Spotify playlist highlights the rise of a new kind of club music, one catered to solo dancing. On “Party Alone”, New York artist Chloe Saavedra – who formed WTRGRL as a side project over lockdown with producer Zhone – sings unaffectedly, “Do you wanna have some fun? But never, ever, ever see anyone? Do you like it on your own? You can party all alone” against shades of cocktail lounge, swinging house and springy basslines. Occasionally, the track is broken up by orgasmic moans as Saavedra pays homage to her favourite vibrator, again evoking the ways in which the pandemic has brought our private lives out into the world. Jersey house producer UNIIQU3’s frenetic track “Rave in My Room” is similarly rooted in a sense of homegrown euphoria: “It’s a rave in my room / Lock the door, throw a look on / Lights off, bass up / Time to turn the fuck up!” goes the chorus, a chopped-up series of vocals delivered with laser-beam precision. The results are ecstatic and strangely reassuring: we might be alone, starved of social interaction and human touch, but at least we’re alone together.

Despite the logistical barriers, the pervasiveness of digital raves during the pandemic suggests the ongoing importance of underground communities, especially in a time of crisis. This is particularly true for queer communities who have historically relied on nightlife as a space to explore and experiment with new identities, removed from the wagging finger of heteronormativity. Virtual spaces have limitless potential. They give us scope to discover new ways of expression beyond real-world restrictions, and in doing so provide welcome respite from the endless noise of news cycles and monotonous days spent in grey flatshares or, worse, your childhood bedroom.

Similarly, internet subcultures like cottagecore and dark academia, both of which enjoyed rocketing popularity during the pandemic, offer another example of the ways in which young people are finding joy in the digital. On TikTok, teens can imagine a world of bucolic bliss or don slubby brown cardigans and write brooding poetry by candlelight. They can wear vintage Punkyfish and pretend they’re in the 00s, or go full-on e-girl with fishnets and anime-inspired hair. Of course, there’s a lot to be said about the inclusivity of these groups. Both cottagecore and dark academia have been criticised for favouring white creators. The inclination towards nostalgia also points to a distrust in the present and our uncertain futures, the romanticisation of bygone eras’ blissful, pre-internet utopias a symptom of this uncertainty. But their pervasiveness cannot be ignored.

A decade ago, social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson coined the term ‘digital dualism’ to describe the false belief that the internet is a separate virtual sphere or cyberspace. The term IRL, he argues, implies that there are two selves. The first is the ‘real’ self that exists in the world, while the other, online self is an entirely separate entity, detached from reality. Instead, Jurgenson proposes the use of AFK (Away From Keyboard) in lieu of IRL, with the term implying a more continuous progression of the self, one that does not end when a user steps away from the computer, but rather moves forward out into society. 

Since the pandemic, our AFK lives have narrowed in scope. Relegated to living out our lives in our homes, working or attending school in our bedrooms and seeing only a handful of chosen friends, the digital has provided us with endless opportunities to fulfil our fantasies outside of real-world limitations. Like Jean Baudrillard’s map of reality, where the ‘maps’ of television and film become as real, if not more real, than our actual lives, the pandemic has further collapsed the distinction between our online and AFK selves. Friendships are now terminally online, with apps like Discord and Omegle proposing novel ways for young people to communicate with each other. Omegle – the online chat site that randomly pairs users in one-on-one video calls – was launched in 2009 as a text-only forum, but now describes itself as “a great way to meet new friends, even while practicing social distancing”. YouTuber Emma Chamberlain even threw herself an Omegle birthday party last May. Alternatively, Discord’s private servers are a place for subcultures to nerd out in intimate settings, removed from the beady gaze of onlookers.

As the pandemic eases, there’s an inclination to slip out of our digital skins and dive straight back into the world. But young people who have spent the last year mediating every social interaction through a screen have carved out new avenues for joy. Virtual events eschew the need for human contact altogether, which will no doubt be useful for those who feel ill-at-ease with the prospect of being in a crowd. Nightlife venues, which have been forced to rethink their operations completely, might diversify their offerings with more bespoke methods of remote clubbing. LWE, an electronic music promoter responsible for running events at London’s Tobacco Dock, for example, is throwing a live event in August, featuring a wall of screens where real-world clubbers can peer into the virtual world, which will be inhabited by virtual ticket-holders experiencing the event in real time. While our desire to see friends and dance en masse won’t disappear overnight – clubs are, after all, an expression of subcultures, communities and crews – the pandemic has accelerated our migration towards the digital, and its effects will stay with us long after the world reopens.