Most people have at least the faintest memory of the first time they went to a proper rave.
First up: the trepidation of getting all your mates together, sorting drugs, pre-drinking homemade cocktails or downing dregs of lager before embarking on whatever adventure awaits. Next: the heart-thumping feeling of dancing freely for hours among thousands of happy strangers, usually way past sunrise.
None of these ritualistic experiences are easily forgotten (no matter how hazy), and they’re exactly what award-winning filmmaker Darren Emerson sought to capture with In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats, a VR exhibition-slash-joyride that takes you right into the heart of Coventry’s acid house scene.
With a VR headset, headphones and haptic vest firmly on, viewers are transported back to 1989, heaped into the back of a virtual Peugeot with a few friends before entering a bedroom plastered wall-to-ceiling with flyers. Before you know it, you’re on an immersive rave-hunting journey peppered with pirate radio announcements, roadside phone boxes, Coventry police’s very own acid house squad (yes, really) before arriving at the almighty rave.
“I actually first started clubbing and raving in November 1995,” London-based Emerson says. “It was the first time I took ecstasy and it was a transformative night. For me and for the people we interviewed for this experience, it was about the adventure. The rave, obviously, was amazing, but the real thrill was not really knowing where you were going and being with your friends.”
For Emerson, In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats is about the seminal years between leaving home and becoming a working adult, where the concept of responsibility isn’t quite tangible and partying takes top priority. “Those moments connect you to who you are,” he continues. “That time changed who I was and made me into the person I wanted to be.”
It was also important for Emerson to show off acid house as a product of British communities, born out of a working class revolution, of people worn down by years of divisive Thatcherism. The result was a movement which galvanised a generation’s youth. “There were a lot of people up and down the country who didn’t really know what to do with themselves, didn’t know their place in society,” he says. “They came together and made their own scene through word of mouth and a desire to find something.”
A couple of years ago, Emerson released Common Ground, a VR documentary about the Aylesbury Estate in south London, which impressed curators from Coventry City of Culture. They got in touch to commission him to do a piece on the city’s acid rave scene, which up until now had been heavily overlooked in many documentaries and books about that era.
And so Emerson dove in headfirst, getting in touch with old school promoters, sound system owners, rave attenders and even police officers to get their take on what the acid house days in Coventry were really like. “It’s really nice to have those West Midlands voices,” he says. “And yeah, a lot of police resources went towards breaking up parties where people were just hugging each other.”
Back then, the Coventry area was big on football and, as a result, football hooliganism and violence. In many ways, the birth of acid house brought much of that violence to a grinding halt, as pissed-up football fans turned to ecstasy and party planning. “Inter-city rivalry, these networks who used to fight under the radar of police, suddenly switched,” Emerson says.
“You needed sound systems from one place, generators from another. You needed to find a warehouse, get flyers out. Suddenly, a violent network became something that was able to beautifully promote and put on a party.” And for this purpose, VR is more conducive to properly capturing the euphoria and unbridled hedonism of raving in general, compared to looking at photographs pinned to a wall.
“To me, the technology is in service to the narrative,” he continues. “Ironically, it’s in place to take you back and connect you to these humanistic sensibilities, building a world that feels textured and real so people feel comfortable in it.”
One person left In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats moved to tears. Others came out buzzing, ready to pick up the phone and get some old mates back together. Beyond the giddy nostalgia Emerson’s exhibition has evoked so far, he’s convinced the DIY spirit of acid house has carried over to contemporary rave culture.
“Raves are organised on Telegram now, which is the new flyer or phone box. There’s something about a bit of civil disobedience, about feeling like you have ownership over something,” he says. “The society we live in is quite hard in terms of feeling connected to people. When you’re out raving, you’re loved up, you can see the world from a different perspective. There’s a deeper meaning to it all which isn’t all about the Tory government and taxes.”
In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats opens today at The Box in Coventry. Click here to book tickets