Documentary / Frieze, Gucci / July 6, 2018 – Reviewed by Jon Lindblom
Jeremy Deller’s documentary Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992 on the political and sociocultural impact of rave and acid house in the UK in the 80s and 90s was commissioned by Frieze in 2018, aired on the BBC about a month ago and has now made it online to Youtube. (Note: I normally do not promote online availability that may or may not violate copyright, but since Deller himself has linked to the film on Youtube on his Twitter, I feel that it is ok to do so this time.) It is a brilliant documentary that tells an ‘incomplete’ story about the emergence of acid house in the black gay clubs in Chicago (Ron Hardy, The Music Box, etc.), on the back of the impact of Kraftwerk and music technology such as the Roland TB-303, and its later migration to the UK sound-system culture, the New Age travellers and popularisation by people such as Charlie Fitzgerald – which culminated in a sociocultural mobilisation of a magnitude not seen since the miner’s strike (and it, needless to say, faced backlash from the political establishment as well).
The brilliance of Deller’s film is how it convincingly ties all these threads together and, by doing so, reminds us of a nexus of progressive art and large-scale sociocultural mobilisation of the young, the minorities and the working class that was crucial to the post-war decades (not just in the UK), but that has been significantly absent from the early 21st century. It is a nexus that my friend, the late theorist Mark Fisher, compellingly used to referred to as popular modernism. For Mark, rave was the culmination of a post-war popular modernism that also encompassed similar progressive cultural moments such as post-punk – where cutting-edge aesthetics acted as social catalysts that spread through and mobilised popular culture and various social strata in ways fundamentally incompatible with the negative accounts of the popular as theorised by the likes of Adorno (i.e. as something that has determinate qualities, in terms of popular vs. serious). Yet what primarily occupied Mark’s thinking from when he emerged as a singular voice of his own in the early 2010s was the disappearance of more or less the entire political and sociocultural infrastructure that made this large-scale, subversive continuum possible throughout the post-war decades – in terms of the instalment of what he famously referred to as ‘capitalist realism’, and whose political premises are the exact opposite of what fuelled these post-war cultural movements (e.g. privatisation, individualisation, business ontology, new bureaucracy, etc.).
With this in mind, Deller’s choice to make the documentary in the format of a lecture to Level A students is absolutely crucial (I would go so far as to say that the students’ reactions and the discussions in the class in the present are just as important as the history and compelling archival footage that Deller shares). For what also concerned Mark was what a culture thoroughly dominated by capitalist imperatives would do to the young who grow up in it and simply do not know anything else (recall for instance his brilliant accounts of what he in Capitalist Realism diagnosed as ‘reflexive impotence’ and ‘depressive anhedonia’ among the students that he taught when working at a Further Education college in the 00s). And even though the mentality of the students in Deller’s class clearly is somewhat different compared to those that Mark taught (i.e. they are actually interested in what he has to say), what nevertheless is persisting is a similar feeling of narrowing of the social and cultural imagination among the young that comes with living under late capitalist hegemony – and, again, particularly with growing up under it and not knowing of anything else. Clearly, education plays (or, rather, should play) a crucial role here – in terms of showing the young that other realities are possible, and that people indeed were fighting for them not that long ago. In this sense, education may play a decisive part in increasing young people’s understanding of their historical positioning within the totality of our current socio-political system – and, by extension, giving them a sense of agency not just to act within, but to actually change, this system.
Two moments in the film stand out to me in particular in this regard. The first is Deller’s account of the New Age travellers and the Spiral Tribe – who took the rave sounds to the British countryside (there is a brilliant clip of two ravers dancing in front of some kind of old British mansion in the countryside, which, as Deller puts it, ‘really messes with our national identity’) and that stands in sharp contrast to the discussion among the students in the present (most of whom are non-white), who all identify as Londoners rather than as British and rarely – if ever – leave the city because of fear of estrangement or even racism (as Deller also notes, many of the rural areas that voted for Brexit were in fact socialist areas before the defeat of the miners, but whose politics hardened afterwards because of feelings of abandonment). The other moment is at the end of the film, when Deller asks the students if they can identify with the young people in the clips that he has shown them, and one girl responds that the idea of going against authority seems very distant today because of the pressure of being under scrutiny – and that, unconsciously, they all conform. To this, Deller also adds the key observation that whereas pop music was the dominant cultural form of the late 20th century, social media has taken on that role now – which I think is crucial precisely insofar as, in contrast to 80s and 90s rave, social media under late (platform) capitalism is all about conformity and whose present cultural dominance thus indexes the cultural stagnation that Mark so poignantly articulated in his writings. Or, as Simon Reynolds has put it when contrasting his own adolescence with that of young people today (i.e. so-called ‘digital natives’, who have grown up in late capitalist, digital postmodernism): whereas his own youth was fuelled by interests such as modernist art, alien life and outer space, the wonders of boundless exteriority no longer seems to have any purchase on teenagers today – immersed as they are in the flimsy spectacles of social media and ‘second life’ virtual realities.
Some may say that this is just old people being nostalgic for their own youth – but that is simply not the case, since what Fisher and Reynolds are expressing is not the cliché of the old no longer being able to keep up with the young, but rather a frustration about the young no longer being able to take over from the old. But the point here is also not that this is the fault of the young themselves (i.e. that they simply need to put more effort into doing something interesting), but rather that the socio-political conditions that previously allowed the young to be artistically and collectively subversive slowly but steadily have been taken away from them. Clearly, re-establishing these conditions is a massive undertaking – and what Everybody in the Place importantly reminds us of is the crucial role played both by culture and education in such an undertaking, in terms invoking different realities thoroughly at odds with those that we increasingly have come to accept as true.