Most of the time when I see McKenzie Wark, I can barely see or hear her at all. We are usually in dark interior spaces, filled with fog machine haze and the throbbing alien sound of techno. We hug and exchange barely-audible greetings under relentless strobe lights, mere cells within a writhing mass of bodies that seems to pulsate as a single organism.
But now we’re in daylight hours, sitting across from each other at a cafe not far from one of the spaces where we often find each other engaging in this sonic ritual. Meeting each other here, sipping coffee in the daytime bustle of Bushwick feels somewhat rare.
“I can only do one night a week these days,” Wark tells me, as we recount some of the past weekend’s highlights: a trans DJ collective’s two-day takeover of a club in Greenpoint; an afterparty where the music went well into the afternoon of the next day; and a happy hardcore rave at a warehouse themed around the classic anime film My Neighbor Totoro.
Wark is several decades my senior, but we have some things in common. We are both white trans women and we’re both ravers, qualities shared by many—but not all—of our mutual friends. We’re also both writers, which means it’s hard for us to resist the daunting (some would argue impossible) task of describing raving through the crudeness of words.
Wark’s new book, Raving, is the latest attempt at putting the rave to the printed page. The book is difficult to place into a single genre. It’s not a navel-gazing theory text. Nor is it just a lurid collection of drug-fueled rave stories. Instead, Wark paints a vivid series of vignettes attempting to build a shared language around raving as a technological and social practice—and trying to make sense of the role it plays in the late-capitalist hellscape we now find ourselves in.
Who raves, and why? What does it mean to dance while the world burns?
Like me, Wark came back to raving after a long hiatus. For both of us, this happened just in time for the COVID lockdown of 2020 to cut us off from our rekindled craving.
“I think it’s a different culture than it was in the 90s. It was sort of utopian and about resistance and spirituality and these sorts of things, but I think now it’s more of an aesthetic space that gets to be kind of a future-time,” said Wark. “The number of possible futures is narrowing all the time. So what we have is Now, and how do you experience the present?”
This idea of raving as a means of distorting our perception of time is a major theme in Wark’s book, and something very familiar to me from being in these spaces.
To properly experience a rave, something I’ve taught myself to do is to enter with intentions, not expectations—kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure game. Maybe this is why raves are so often described as utopian spaces with utopian possibilities: raving is a collaborative practice, and everyone gets what they put into it. The hosts provide the physical space and set the mood; DJs bring good tunes to build atmosphere; promoters bring the ravers, and the ravers bring the vibes.
The result is what Wark calls a “constructed situation,” where everyone’s collective vibes create a shared ravespace. People come to raves for all sorts of reasons, but if all goes well—and that’s often a big “if”—Wark writes that they can produce a euphoric kind of nonlinear time. Within this sideways techno-time, measured in kick drum beats, she describes a “rave continuum,” where moments flow into one another and all raves past, present and future seem to connect. Drugs aren’t necessary to enter rave-time in my experience, but many would argue they don’t hurt either.
This ability to exist out of body and time in the present is undoubtedly a big part of why the rave attracts so many queer and trans people. For better or worse, Wark says, trans people in particular are “virtuosos” of dissociation—a survival trait learned by people whose bodies are often viewed with disgust and suspicion, and who are statistically more likely to experience trauma and violence in their day-to-day lives.
It makes sense that, for many people, the rave can be a place of healing. It enables what Wark terms “xeno-euphoria,” a kind of self-care which comes from enmeshing oneself in external situations like raves, generating “euphoric states of welcome strangeness.”
“I’ve always felt like my version of dysphoria is sort of diffuse. Not a lot works on it, but dancing really does,” said Wark, describing how the strange and repetitive qualities of rave music can allow for healthy forms of disembodiment. “There’s something about the abstractness of techno. I feel like it’s alien to any kind of body at all, so I don’t feel especially weird in it.”
Of course, that all went away in March 2020, when the COVID lockdown disconnected techno and raving communities and replaced them with livestreams and Zoom dance parties. For our fellow ravers—many of them people of color, queer, trans, or some combination thereof—the isolation was particularly devastating.
Even now, with the clubs reopened, there is a certain existential discomfort to raving. COVID is still at large, environmental devastation continues unchecked, and LGBTQ communities are increasingly being targeted and scrutinized by politicians, the media, and violent extremists—including in spaces that are meant to be safe, like clubs.
But to Wark—who was involved with the rave scene during the peak of the AIDS crisis—there are other important forms of safety in addition to the kind that protects you from a virus.
“This isn’t my first pandemic. I’ve lost people during the pandemic to COVID, but I’ve also lost people to the isolation,” said Wark. “Some friends aren’t here anymore, and isolation was a major contributor to that. Some people need these spaces.”
Of course, these needs go all the way back to the places where raving and techno started: the Black and queer communities of post-industrial cities like Detroit and Chicago. Raves were initially responses to Black disenfranchisement, where artists re-purposed consumer technology to give birth to techno, jungle, and house music in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Within the communities where it began, raving has always been linked to survival and the economic conditions faced by marginalized workers. And like all cultural revolutions, it would inevitably be appropriated by the forces of capital and industry.
As scholar DeForrest Brown, Jr. writes in Assembling a Black Counterculture, techno was conceived as “a concept of sonic world-building and coded information exchange” which coincided with the availability of relatively-cheap consumer synthesizers like the Roland TR-808 and TB-303. Black techno pioneers like Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson “were part of a resilient cultural moment in Detroit from 1972 to 1987, as the population of the city flipped into a Black working-class majority during a post-industrial decline rife with economic lows and high unemployment.”
That’s a far cry from the raves of today, which can sometimes be gaudy affairs with high ticket prices and promoters who care more about ROIs and cultural clout than any sense of community. While it’s always tempting to romanticize the rave, the politics of nightlife remain grounded in the unshakable realities of class, race, and which bodies are considered “other.”
“The problem with rave as utopia is that all those social contradictions are still there,” says Wark. “Just because you walk through a doorway doesn’t change that.”
Several of our mutual friends work in nightlife, and they know this well. Last year, one friend of mine was working bar at a queer club in Bushwick where a man came in, poured gasoline on the floor, and set the place on fire (Thankfully, no one was killed). A few weeks prior, several stabbings at other popular locations in the area had already put queer communities on edge. All were reminders that the safety of these spaces—despite everyone’s best efforts—is always a relative safety.
Even still, there is something precious to be found amidst the speaker stacks and fog. It’s not revolution or transcendence, but for some, it can satisfy a need to be anchored in a strange, futuristic present at a time when imagined futures seem increasingly out of reach.
“It’s an experimental space,” says Wark. “I learn a lot about my own body and about how to be around other people, about the fiber of whatever my being is. I can’t shut down my inner monologue, but to be free of it, that is something I can get into.”
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