The SWEET HARMONY: RAVE|TODAY was an immersive retrospective exhibition devoted to presenting the revolutionary era of rave culture through the voices and lenses of those who experienced it first-hand. Presented in the Saatchi Gallery during the late summer-time of 2019, the exhibition shed a light on a part of musical history often overlooked by historians and documenters.
First, some background; The exhibition aimed to encapsulate and document the acid house revolution which took Britain by storm during the late 80s and early 90s and proceeded to transform the club scene indefinitely. The acid house movement was the biggest youth revolution for decades since the notable rise of punk during the early 70s. Dubbed the ‘Second summer of love’ because of the euphoric and loving feeling brought on by the import of a new drug: Ecstasy. Combined with new innovations in electronic music, the youth saw a dangerous new combination of deep synthesiser basslines and resonant fast-paced drum loops made possible by the introduction of the Roland TB-303.
The genre would come to be seen as the music to reintroduce dancing back into the British club scene which for years had simply been locations to meet members of the opposite sex and drink. The media sensationalised the dangers of acid house and ecstasy and as a result provided a movement which became seen as a challenge to authority. In response to a movement which was fast growing out of control, parliament passed various bills and laws restricting the freedom of the movement, with special police units set up specially to stop unlicensed clubs and parties. With government response, this movement turned from a musical craze to a politically fuelled following basically overnight. Members of the acid house scene saw their movement as one which battled the confines of authority and argued for the freedom to be oneself.
The exhibition itself sees an incorporation of multimedia works, with most of the artists included opting for photography to depict the setting and experiences of this revolutionary movement. However, some artists chose to document their experiences through sculpture, incorporating the popular motifs of the time such as neon lighting or the smiley face which became heavily associated with the movement through the printing of flyers and posters.
These motifs were beautifully sculpted into popular place-markers of the movement such as petrol stations which became the infamous meeting points before setting off, or the gates of abandoned warehouse buildings which housed most of the organised raves. Along these the exhibition saw the incorporation of immersive musical exhibits, where the old synthesisers and drum loop machines were placed at various points throughout the two-story exhibition, allowing visitors to have a go at creating their own electronic music (with various outcomes).
Most notable was the large collection of memorabilia gathered by the Saatchi gallery, with a whole gallery wall being completely covered in old rave flyers and posters, allowing the visitor an insight into the symbolism and various imagery which decorated the various walls of nightclubs and warehouses at the time. Other notable sights of the exhibition were the large-scale prints taken by photographer Tom Hunter, which worked brilliantly to capture the young people involved in the scene but also the relative settings and colours which were seen and experienced by those actually there. Hunter worked largely with a fast shooting lens to capture light streaks and heavily exposed flash settings to frame the subject of the photo in perfect view, which creates a beautifully transcendent image where the light of the flash illuminates the happiness of youth juxtaposed against a largely dark background. Tom Hunter worked largely to capture the inclusivity of the movement, documenting men and women, rich and poor, black or white or Asian. The images worked to give a real sense of the acid house revolution and allowed one to experience, through photography, such a short-lived phenomenon.
All artists and creatives responsible for the exhibition ought to be thanked for an incredibly interesting and immersive exhibition. The exhibition’s authenticity and allure can be credited to an incredibly talented panel of visionaries, of which many lived through the movement themselves, including Sheryl Garratt, Agnes Bliah, Juan Rincon (Voltage and SCI-Arc), Jorge Nieto (Creative Director of Village Underground) and Craig Richards, all of whom made significant contributions in the execution of the exhibition. Among the photographers who provided many of the pieces on display, not only Tom Hunter can be named, with Vinca Petersen, Ted Polhemus, Dave Swindells and Mattko providing amazingly talented insights which culminated in a unique and timely production over the two main floors of the gallery.
Given the recent exposure of the acid house scene within the media, there have been a number of insightful publications and websites which have sprung forth to document this time on a more detailed level. A very recent exhibition of the acid house movement can be found at acidhouseflashback.com, an online archive which was created in response to the British Textile Biennial 2019 programme. This online publication plays host to multiple interviews with DJs and ravers to investigate the movement on a more personal level; with the aim of Flashback being to provide a closely documented account of the acid house revolution specifically in Blackburn: How it came about, how people reacted to it, how the police reacted to it and the lasting after effect of the movement are all questions which are answered through Flashback’s thorough accounting of the time. Flashback works to create a much more personalised local response to this time in history, using local DJs and reporters who were present at the time to give their first-hand accounts of the time and the raves themselves. Definitely worth a look if you are at all interested!
Written by Edsard Driessen