Streamland

Left: Dancers warming up at an after-hours art fair and party, Brooklyn, NY. Right: Sunrise at Nowadays, Queens, NY. [Audrey Wachs; Nick Doermann]

Not long ago, a going-out Saturday night in New York City would end on the bus among servers heading to their brunch shifts, home-health aids commuting to patients, MTA workers riding to the depot, and me, in full makeup, comfy sneakers, and a black dress which had absorbed at least half a drink on the dance floor. On the advice of U.S. public health experts, however, my partner and I are now raving at home, and have been since March.1Although electronic dance music is associated by many with extravagant festivals where attendees wear neon leg-warmers with glittery bikinis, the term is really a catchall for percussive music made primarily with synthesizers, drum machines, and recorded audio, which was pioneered in the 1980s by Black artists in Detroit and Chicago. For more information on the history, origins, and characteristics of contemporary EDM, see Michaelangelo Matos, “Electronic dance music,” Encyclopædia Britannica (November 2016). We cue up our laptops, pour ourselves maté and tequila, and watch artists mixing melodic house or hard trance from kitchen tables for a ticker-tape of usernames scrolling by on a Twitch stream.2If you’d like to listen to what I’m listening to, I’ve put together a playlist of my favorite quarantine tracks and streams here. I sometimes mark the occasion by wearing a favorite jumpsuit that would be wildly out-of-place at Wegmans supermarket, the only establishment I frequent these days. But we usually stay in our cozy clothes.

It’s a treat to party-hop from a DJ’s courtyard in Bogotá to an apartment in Tbilisi to a patio in Berlin without having to put on shoes.

Our retreat indoors coincided, of course, with the collapse of the entire going-out ecosystem. But that ecosystem is also being reborn, or rebooted. In response to worldwide lockdown orders, artists, organizers, and venue owners have assembled a digital infrastructure that adapts a nightly communal ritual to the current crisis in public space. Digital raves, as lonely as they may sound, attempt to channel the sweaty experience of the dancefloor and to transform the isolated pandemic-residential interior into a zone for communion and catharsis, even in physical separation.

I’m of two minds about the switch to online parties. In one sense, streams are an unparalleled convenience: it’s a treat to party-hop from a DJ’s courtyard in Bogotá to an apartment in Tbilisi to a patio in Berlin without having to put on shoes, much less makeup. From simple one-camera setups to invite-only multi-artist digital clubs purpose-built on Minecraft, these gatherings are a worthy approximation of a club experience. On the other hand, I greatly miss the energizing sensory encounters of a night out, which can’t be copy-pasted directly into the living room.

On the other hand, I miss the energizing sensory bath of a night out, which can’t be copy-pasted directly into the living room.

While most quarantine streams are low-key affairs produced from the decks of an empty club or the artist’s bedroom, organizers of only-online parties have tried to re-embody venues for the lockdowns. These spaces eschew the prevailing club aesthetic of houseplants, salt lamps, and fog to instead feature chaotic visualizations that draw on the cartoonishly maximalist visual language of Y2K and net culture. A few stand out for their music and immersive graphics: for a recent set by Berlin-based Tommy Four Seven, the international dance-music collective RAW generated deconstructed data visualizations that surrounded the artist in a ring of mesmerizing circulating chains. In July, Community Bread, a queer-led music-and-resources platform, fundraised for the Trans Women of Color Collective via a stream where some artists, like New York’s Xiorro, played to saturated crystalline animations by Michael Fabiani. (In the chat, user arvlol noted dryly that these visuals “cured my blindness.”)

Some organizers are going a step further in scene-setting by leveraging existing virtual worldmaking platforms to party online. Upstart Club Cringe hosted recurring limited-capacity, multi-room events on Second Life where avatars had to pass through the organizers’ virtual velvet rope. Meanwhile, as part of its April event isoStream, the Melbourne-based promoter Bunker tapped 3D artists to create what it called a “choose your own adventure” environment that included a dance floor, bar, green room, and even a bathroom for raver avatars. Most platforms have a chat function, so listeners can “wooooo yeah!!” during a set in the same way they would on a dancefloor.

Berlin-based DJ and producer Tommy Four Seven, during Escape From Reality II, a virtual rave organized by international label and booking agency RAW. [Audrey Wachs]

Regardless of where an online production falls on the spectrum from sophisticated to ad-hoc, if the music is good, I reach a level of transcendence that I associate with a fulfilling night out, pre-pandemic. In brick-and-mortar spaces, the intensity of the dance floor and the social rituals that surround it allow me to hold space for deep contemplative relaxation. It’s affordable therapy to two-step my way, eyes closed, through a relationship problem; or to mentally unravel a difficult conversation, surrounded by the bodies of others and the sweetness of fog juice and palo santo. In the spaces that I know and like, I’m usually in the mix with goths who meditate to dark industrial, or black-tee-black-sweatpant–wearing crowds at small venues grooving to DJs who spin bouncy psy trance, squelchy acid, and staccato hardcore in arrangements that exemplify the heterogenous, hard-to-definitively-classify sound of New York dancefloors. I delight in seeing friends and strangers warm into their whole selves in ways that are not always welcomed or safe in other places.3New York dancefloors are not all kumbaya. Raving is fun, but it’s also deeply political. I, as a white cisgendered woman, emphatically do not want to fetishize diversity or gloss over the ways in which racism, transphobia, classism, and other political and socioeconomic issues harm participants in dance-music culture, especially BIPOC and LGBT+ ravers, artists, and organizers. There are many groups doing the work to dismantle white supremacy on the dancefloor, including Dweller, a Brooklyn festival and blog which centers Black artists; Papi Juice, an art collective that throws events and parties centering trans and queer people of color; and Discwoman, a Brooklyn-based booking agency and label run by and for gender non-conforming and women artists. This variety is reflected in the range of real-life parties in the city, the best of which counter the hegemony of globally popular white-European techno by cultivating emerging artists who honor the roots of electronic dance music.4In a recent critique for Dweller, Discwoman cofounder Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson called this highly lucrative segment of the industry “business techno.” Hutchinson critiqued well-resourced European promoters and artists who routinely appropriate Black culture and are now throwing parties paying lip service to health and safety measures, during a pandemic that is most lethal in Black and brown communities. See Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, “business techno matters: how those who have the most sacrifice the least,” Dweller, August 18, 2020.

Club Cringe, a New York-based artist and performance collective, used Twitch and Second Life to host a virtual rave series during the lockdown. [Club Cringe]

A good party is placemaking under compressed circumstances. Over the course of a night, the enthusiastic conversations with people on line for the bathroom, the early-morning hip stretches I do with friends while we weigh the desirability of a return to a dancefloor radiating punchy gabber, and the cloud of collective exertion arising after a great set can convert a raw warehouse or a bar with a gnarled, linoleum-tiled back room into a home for the evening. At the end, as I walk to the bus with sore calves, ears buzzing, I get a runner’s high: tired physically but purified mentally.

A few online raves have got me to the edge of this sensory bath. When I know I can cut in or out of a party at will, however, I don’t sink into myself as I would ordinarily. Despite chats where I can see the usernames of people I know, there’s little opportunity for situational conversation and meeting new people. The visuals, whether humble or slick, are enjoyable to watch, but it’s tough to both dance freely and keep my eyes on a 15” display. It would be pandemic overconfidence to characterize the music blaring from a laptop’s default browser as equivalent to the steamy energy of a 200-person room. I’m enjoying what online raves can offer, regardless. In softening dated binaries between real and digital, public and private, they offer new rituals for connectedness in a strange time.

Notes

  1. Although electronic dance music is associated by many with extravagant festivals where attendees wear neon leg-warmers with glittery bikinis, the term is really a catch-all for percussive music made primarily with synthesizers, drum machines, and recorded audio; the genre was pioneered in the 1980s by Black artists in Detroit and Chicago. For more information on the history, origins, and characteristics of contemporary EDM, see Michaelangelo Matos, “Electronic dance music,” Encyclopædia Britannica, (November 2016).
  2. If you’d like to listen to what I’m listening to, I’ve put together a playlist of my favorite quarantine tracks and streams here.
  3. New York dancefloors are not all kumbaya. Raving is fun, but it’s also deeply political. I, as a white cisgendered woman, emphatically do not want to fetishize diversity or gloss over the ways in which racism, transphobia, classism, and other political and socioeconomic issues harm participants in dance-music culture, especially BIPOC and LGBT+ ravers, artists, and organizers. There are many groups doing the work to dismantle white supremacy on the dancefloor, including Dweller, a Brooklyn festival and blog which centers Black artists; Papi Juice, an art collective that throws events and parties centering trans and queer people of color; and Discwoman, a Brooklyn-based booking agency and label run by and for gender non-conforming and women artists.
  4. In a recent critique for Dweller, a Brooklyn festival and blog which centers Black artists, Discwoman co-founder Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson called this highly lucrative segment of the industry “business techno.” Hutchinson critiqued well-resourced European promoters and artists who routinely appropriate Black culture and are now throwing parties that pay lip service to health and safety measures, during a pandemic that is most lethal in Black and brown communities. See Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, “business techno matters: how those who have the most sacrifice the least,” Dweller (August 18, 2020).

About the Author

Audrey Wachs

Audrey Wachs is pursuing a Master of Regional Planning at Cornell University, where she studies climate-change adaptation policy and community response to natural disasters. Before graduate school, she covered all things buildings-and-cities as The Architect’s Newspaper’s associate editor.