It’s the start of summer 2021. Every weekend, a few hundred ravers gather on the leafy green paths of the Bois de Vincennes on the edge of Paris, clutching their phones in their hands to light up the dark night. Every space, every clearing becomes the theatre of a new improvised ritual. Lasers pierce the thick branches of the trees, speakers loom in the darkness, and the dull echo of techno beats resounds across the forest floor, transformed into a dancefloor by the ravers in a trance. Everyone there knows that the party is ephemeral and that at any moment the dream could disappear in a puff of gas, as since the start of the year all across France, from Lieuron to Redon via the periphery of Paris, the police have been surprising the Free Party movement with force. There’s every reason to think that the future of rave is impossible. But that would be to underestimate the spirit that animates and stimulates these crowds of dancers on the fringes. Because at the core of these illegal parties, in the interlude of a neverending crisis, everyone is trying desperately to feel the real in a radical way by conjuring the present, through parties, sounds and collectivity. An existential quest which began at the end of the 80s, on the other side of the Channel, and which is far from reaching its end point.
All too often in thinking about the rave movement we only remember an underground aesthetic threatened by the commercial logic of capitalism, which is ready to dispense with the subversive dimension that nonetheless constitutes its essence. Thirty years after its first appearance, numerous ravers, sociologists, historians and other aficionados are keen to go back to the roots of the rave movement (and its derivatives) to restore its original form. A kind of peripheral laboratory where all kinds of normative codes are deconstructed and a new set of alternative values are developed, the rave, or Free Party, can also be approached as a material practice, as a defined social event in which time dilates, space expands, and consciousnesses commune...in the general euphoria of collective fusion.
The musicologist and lecturer Guillaume Kosmicki counts amongst his scholarly interests the history of rave in France. Since the 1990s, through his long experience as a raver, Kosmicki gathered dozens of accounts, brought together today in a volume entitled Free Party - Une histoire, des histoires, published by Le Mot et Le Reste. Through the stories within, the musicologist talks about the early days of the movement in England, when rave emerged as a spontaneous reaction to a post-industrial society that had embarked upon a reactionary course. In doing so, it also tells the story of the schism which developed within the movement, pitting the partisans of legal raves against the fervent defenders of the Free Party, the eternal rebels. And, of course, it also includes the reminiscences of the elders who passed the torch to new generations of ravers. From collective euphoria to, for some, disillusion, from the “yes future” to the deconstruction of the real, via the altered states of consciousness and the annihilation of the self, Guillaume Kosmicki sees rave as an eternal (re)start. The end of the beginning of the end. Encounter.
Before raves arrived on French shores, it developed in England, where it translated a general need for communion among young people, given a political context in which they were completely alienated from their elders. What can the birth of rave tell us about that epoch, in your view?
England in the 1980s was the Thatcher era: a period created in her own image. Reactionary, conservative, anti-youth. Thatcher attacked head on all opportunities for freedom and collective social demands. There were a certain number of restrictions on freedom. A law was passed which meant that all nightclubs and venues had to close at 2am. This was in 1987. That law pushed young people to seek alternative venues for partying where they would be free from police control. And so the first raves were born. They took place in peri-urban sites such as hangars, old factories and abandoned buildings, or in natural spaces. At that time people referred to 1988 as the second Summer of Love. It was euphoric and it was everywhere. Everyone was really into it. Raves became a bigger and bigger phenomenon. At the same time, in 1987, a new kind of music arrived that was also revolutionary: house music, straight from Chicago. A little bit later the techno movement would come out of Detroit. By mixing the tracks, the DJ made sure there was a constant flow of music, a journey without end, which hypnotized the crowd. The music went on, the beat was hypnotic, and no one element of the music predominated - it was a complete fusion of sound. The fact that Thatcher’s restrictive law passed at the same time as this new musical direction was developed is telling. It’s impossible not to see in it an attempt on the part of the authorities to control a general slide towards disinhibition. It is often said that Thatcher inadvertently invented the rave.
Is this also to do with the appearance of new drugs in the same period?
Yes. At the same time as this was taking off, a psychoactive substance which had already existed for some time became more widespread: ecstasy. It’s a very euphoriant drug which produces a feeling of intense well-being and connection with those around you. Dancers feel the music resonate in their bodies and can dance for hours before starting to feel tired. Other drugs are also consumed, but what they all have in common is that they allow people to accede to a trance-like state. This whole new ritual which was based on the over-stimulation of the senses brought about a movement of collective euphoria in a reactionary England which was seeking to control its population to the maximum. Rave became a vital way of letting off steam, given the political reality of the country at the time.
At the start of the 1990s, French youth, for its part, seemed to want to move away from the splash-the-cash, heroin culture of the 1980s. How did young people in France come to the rave movement?
In France, it’s true, rave was reinterpreted. English sound systems led to the development of the Free Party - free in the sense of uninhibited rather than something you didn’t have to pay for, even if they were governed by the regime of the gift. So as the movement was being ever increasingly repressed in England, it migrated and came to Europe. We’re at the start of the 1990s and the raves which appeared in France were in the same DIY and punk spirit as they had been in England. It was a movement linked to squats and alternative culture with anarchist values. Having known it myself and gathered a lot of accounts which testify to this, I can say that the barriers which existed at that time between the different style tribes – the rastas, the skinheads, the punks, the acid heads, the hippies – collapsed. Rave and the associated drugs allowed for a reconciliation between these groups, brought together in an unprecedented collective joy. Techno as a musical form also allows for this fusion into a collective, on a technical level. It’s a music that uses samples from everywhere and materializes this union in sonic form.
Ravers often talk about their first experiences as a rite of passage, a kind of auto-baptism. In what ways does rave constitute a rite of passage?
In our Western societies there are fewer and fewer rites of passage to adulthood. Youth has had to invent its own rituals by itself and rave is part of that. Symbolically and physically the individual seeks to go beyond themselves. Mystery is also an important part of the rite. In most cases, the location of a rave is secret until the last moment, turning the journey to the rave into a sort of quest. In French you call the person in charge of taking you there “un passeur” - a ferryman. Most people who discovered raves in that era were introduced to it by people who were generally older and more experienced, through a kind of mentoring process, which meant there was a chain of initiation. The repetitive beat of the music played a really critical role as well. All of that contributed to the trance phenomenon, that altered state of consciousness, cultivated and fostered in a variety of ways: the secrecy until arriving at the site, the clandestine nature of the gathering, the decibels, but also the substances, the dancing bodies etc. This phenomenon of hypnosis, of abandon and trance made this a culture in and of itself.
Do you remember how you felt at your first rave?
There were really several first raves as I frequented very different kinds of rave-parties, from very big official gatherings to small clandestine parties, but if I were to choose one, I’d choose a small rave organised in Aix-en-Provence by the Psychiatrik in 95 which was really powerful. It was at a moment when all of the different, really diverse cliques in Aix seemed to be gathered together in the early hours, under the influence of the same substances, sharing a feeling of euphoria and community the likes of which no one had ever experienced before. The nature was magnificent, we just wanted to embrace it all, it was a very powerful and profound feeling. The sunrise took on a ceremonial quality to the extent that many of us had tears in our eyes. I had never seen such a beautiful sunrise. It was an extremely powerful moment, during which we were naive enough to believe it would be the first in a long series of such moments, that we would be able to keep on re-living it to the end of time. But it’s impossible. You have to accept that this kind of communion can never be replicated and that it is its ephemeral quality which makes it special.
We often use the language of the scared when we talk about rave culture. Why do you think this is?
Indeed, we often talk about the DJ as a kind of guide or guru. The ebbing of the sacred in our Western societies had led to a reconstruction of the sacred. There’s a need to make the rave sacred, along with the collective fusion and the trance. Many participants attribute a magical quality to the music as if it were a super-human power impossible to resist. I have always felt a real need among the ravers I have hung around with or interviewed to believe in these ideas.
The space-time of the rave is also very significant insofar as it provides the setting for the trance experience. In what ways does the fact that the party's ephemeral contribute to its sacralisation?
The space-time of the rave is very paradoxical. When you participate in it you have the impression that the rave has neither beginning nor end; time is suspended as if it is extended. This is quite the opposite of time as we perceive it in Western societies, where time is to do with work and is measurable. There is this idea of stasis and repetition in rave which makes it infinite even as it is ephemeral. The taut sonic flux reinforces this idea of the infinite. The essence of rave is that it disappears as if it had never happened in the first place and then pops up elsewhere. It will evaporate and yet this is not something one ever feels during the rave itself. You dance under the illusion that it will last forever.
Earlier you talked about the power of techno as an integral part of the trance state. How does it promote this altered state of consciousness?
Contrary to many types of trance practiced throughout the world, this kind is not regulated because it isn’t governed by a set of laws. That being said, there is a trance apparatus at raves and the sonic architecture plays a big part. The rhythm is regular, mechanical and quasi-automatic. The music functions like an enormous machine. It’s notable that this machine is often interrupted, often hindered in its implacable operation – there are cuts, there are skips, technical problems which often make the crowd cry out and provoke very interesting collective moments. It’s the failing of the machine which makes it in part organic, like a kind of woven matrix in a big synthetic case. Together the whole thing evokes the beating of a heart. There’s a confusion between the dancer, their cardiac rhythm and the techno-machine. Opposite the group in movement, the sound system incarnates the organic machine, positioned like an immense totem, making the DJ invisible, relegating them to the back row. Therein lies a very strong political dimension, because the machine no longer appears as a tool of subjugation but as an instrument of play and disinhibition.
The sociologist and professor Michel Maffesoli has said on the subject of rave culture that it promotes the swallowing up of the subject and annihilation of the ego. Can we see in the collective euphoria of the rave a resistance to modern individualism?
Here we must distinguish the discourse of rave from its practice, since when we’re in the world of utopia it’s always difficult to identify its concrete realization. But one thing’s for sure – ravers have always shared the same desire, that of melting into the crowd, not to disappear completely into it, I don’t think, but to participate in it fully, which goes completely against the grain of everything our modern systems of thought tell us. It’s very interesting to observe here the way in which the DJ at a rave party never becomes a celebrity. The dancers move to dance in front of the speakers. The DJ is practically invisible because they too belong to the group, to the moving mass. They do not dominate anyone or anything.
Through transgressing the norms of the social order, in positioning themselves in opposition to modern temporality, do ravers, in your view, also share the desire to create their own world, disconnected from our reality?
Personally, that is what I was looking for in rave culture, yes. When I was participating in Free Parties, what I had in mind was utopia. I thought that something other than this, a new world entirely, was possible. When I saw that people could dance and coexist in a peaceful way for days on end, I asked myself the question: is it possible to see in this another way of living entirely? I ended up by moving away from this idea, but that was part of the initiation. The comedown is inevitable. The fact of saying “we didn’t succeed” is an integral part of the experience. In the accounts I gathered, the phrase “it was better before” recurs all the time like a kind of necessity -- a leitmotif which we find in all youth movements and all movements which have, at a given moment in time, tried to change things, structurally. But to avoid the pitfall of sadness, I have always wanted to know, when I interview people, if they felt that the Free Party movement, even if it didn’t change the world, changed their personal trajectories. The response was always very optimistic and the memories very happy.
In your book, you quote Debbie from Spiral Tribe, on the subject of the end of the world: “We used to talk about the end of the world, not as a catastrophe but as reaching a higher level of consciousness. It was as if we were invincible.” Do you share this point of view?
Rave has always situated itself at the edge of one world and at the start of another. The principles of clandestinity and mobility, and the concept of the gift, are all factors that distance it from the “normal” world. It’s this desire which ties together the different histories of rave culture. Today the ecological and social crises are so serious that the construction of a new world is no longer a dream but the most urgent necessity imaginable. And faced with that, raves have remained fundamentally subversive events. You just have to look at the outcry every time a rave is organised and then covered by the media. In that response we can see all its subversive power.
On that note, it is interesting to look at how the media coverage and repression of the Lieuron rave, organised at the start of 2021. What was your take on it?
I think it’s completely natural that these types of parties are organised even in a pandemic. You cannot in all decency demand that all the young people in the world grow up in this fragmented, isolated, penned-in way. Moreover, don’t make the mistake of thinking that rave is a spontaneous, anarchic or impulsive event. There is always an organizing principle behind it, involving decision-making and position-taking. Partying is political. You only have to read the editorial signed by the collective behind the Lieuron rave party published in Libération a few days after their arrest, in which they defended it as a political gesture. You can’t just say that they wanted to party in spite of public health measures or because they couldn't help themselves. It’s much deeper and more important than that. The repression and the stigmatisation of the participants served as an example the authorities could use to dissuade other collectives from organising raves.
Many former and new participants in the movement deplore the aesthetic recuperation of rave by advertising, fashion or politics for example. How can rave guard itself against capitalism’s attempts to co-opt it? Can it remain an intact space?
The consumer society and the society of spectacle, in essence, gobble everything up, even whatever emerges at its edges. But subversion can also sell products and lifestyle; it can encourage conformity. Very early on techno was recuperated by politics as a symbol of openness and progressivism. It has been used for jingles in advertising and on TV shows. In my view, the only way you can escape these attempts at recuperation is by continually reinventing things, modifying practices, constantly changing the location of the party, the look, redefining its aesthetic, like a perpetual metamorphosis. And fundamentally I believe in the power of youth to keep evolving.
Translated into English by Sara & Emma Bielecki.