Welcome to Jeremy Deller’s School of Rave

The British artist brings lasers, 303s, Karl Marx, and the right to assemble into the classroom.

by Hettie Judah
Oct 2 2018, 8:23pm

One hot day this summer, Jeremy Deller took over the politics class at a London high school. Over five rave-themed hours—filled with excruciating footage of vintage British TV shows—the conceptual artist argued that the beat-heavy free parties vilified as a national scourge in the 1980s were central to the politics of the decade.

“For me it’s impossible to separate music and popular culture from history,” Deller says. His track record bears testimony: previously, he’s commissioned brass bands from the north of England to play acid house tracks, held a life drawing class with Iggy Pop as the model, and restaged a violent clash between striking miners and police known as the Battle of Orgreave. “I think rave was forgotten about for a long time: you can dismiss anything when there are drugs involved.”

The result is an unconventional documentary—Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992—to be screened at Frieze London this Sunday. Sponsored by Gucci, it merits a special award for least kiss-ass fashion-related film ever. (If Alessandro Michele fills the runway next season with outsized jeans and fractal tie-dye T-shirts accessorized with white gloves and giant pacifiers, I promise to eat my bucket hat.)

The buttock-clenching archive clips kick off with two snippets from The Hit Man and Her, a late-night dance music show that ran between 1988 and 1992. In the first, chipper presenters are hosting a nightclub thronged with awkward teens in suits and ties, playing party games and dancing stiffly for the cameras. Two years later, the same presenters find themselves drowned out by electronic beats and jostled by people dancing in baggy clothes under disorienting lights. No one cares about their crappy TV show. The presenters look old, unmoored, and terrified.

“It’s amazing that to get into a club in 1988 you still had to dress like you were going to work. But then it did change, and fast: that’s the punk rock moment,” says Deller, who in the movie suggests that rave “was more punk than punk ever was.”

The school kids look unsure about the freakily dressed, uncoordinated people dancing with apparent carefree abandon. One wonders whether there was more license for odd public behavior in the days before social media.

Well-schooled by School of Rock, Deller ducked the role of old fart lecturing kids about how much better youth culture was in his day: “I was just straight with them, and I also tried to connect things to now.” The parallels are there for the drawing: the tabloid vilification of grime and drill music, police violence, terrifying changes to the job market, and the political swing to the right all find echo in the portrait of the late 1980s drawn by Deller.

He’s not the first artist to revisit rave culture. Others have deviated into nit-picking wankery about incomprehensible sub-genres of electronic music, or eulogized the performance art free-for-all that crept into its later days. Deller instead rewrites the popular history of rave by returning to its sociopolitical context.

Everybody in the Place traces the movement to black British sound systems playing music associated with Chicago’s LGBT scene. Deller unearths photos of sound systems setting up in libraries and community centers in Manchester: free traveling parties in public spaces. “People think that house music got invented in 1988: that’s because white people discovered it,” notes one of the interviewees.

The film also runs a line between trade union strikes at the start of the decade and rave at the end of it. The desire to assemble and party was a show of mass resistance, perhaps stimulated by constant TV footage of heavy-handed suppression of strikers. But the parties themselves took place in abandoned industrial buildings where members of the raver’s own families had once worked.

“Things had got so bad in Britain that you literally needed help to become human again,” says Deller. “Rave was a release from a pretty grim decade.”

Jeremy Deller
rave culture
Frieze London