Anyone buying a ticket for Skepta’s three-night run at Manchester International Festival will have expected little more than a standard gig, curiously named Dystopia987. In fact, come Wednesday, Thursday or Friday of this week, they found themselves waiting at the edge of a disused scrapyard to be escorted to a fictitious underground rave inside huge tunnels and set forty years in the future; phones disabled, plunged into a Punchdrunk-esque world of actors and role play and at the mercy of talking AI rave software called Dambrin.
The project was a four months in-the-making bevy of technological and live music firsts, dreamt up by a team that TEM Studio’s Christopher Pearson describes as a “trilogy – Dawn King, a dystopian writer who’s delivering the core narrative and backstory; Skepta, who’s performing; and then our creative studio who are shaping the space.”
So how did it all come about? Manchester International Festival pride themselves on thinking dynamically about how live music will evolve in the future. So when they bagged Skepta as a headliner, a standard gig was never on the agenda. They cherry-picked their triumvirate – TEM have previously worked with everyone from Beyonce to Gucci, King’s the darling of both BAFTA and the National Theatre – and tasked them with doing something new. “We’re actually kind of working for MIF with Skepta,” Pearson explains.
What emerged from talks between the parties was a narrative fleshed out and put into poetry by Dawn King.
Hello. My name is Dambrin.
Intelligent Rave Software.
I see you.
I see you
Please follow these basic instructions
No shoving, no pushing
If you need to pass another human say ‘excuse me please’
If you would like to touch another human, ask their permission first.
Do you agree?
If you agree, nod, so that I can see.
They pictured a not-too-distant future in which IRL experience was all but replaced by isolation. “Skepta talked about human connection, celebrating love and finding a utopia inside a dystopia,” King explains. And where have people been railing against the status quo and reconnecting with humanity since the days of Dionysis? At the rave, of course. “We imagined this gang of young and rebellious programmers that love raving and love tech. They come together with Skepta to design this programme to help people to connect.”
And so as ravers arrived at the venue they were ushered in in groups of twenty; scanned, future-Berghain style to ensure they were ‘worthy of entry’ (an actor in each group was refused entry to ensure peak anxiety); and told to place their phones in disabling plastic sacks previously used by Childish Gambino at his shows. “One of our early ambitions was to take away everyone’s phones,” Pearson explains. “Remove this rogue software that can pollute the atmosphere.”
The night’s narrator-cum-tour guide was a genderless voice who could be heard over tannoys and through headphones. “We called the programme Dambrin after this guy who wrote the Fruity Loops programme,” King explains. “It’s a massive part of the grime scene. We like to think of it as the great-great-grandaddy of our programme in some way.”
Across three tunnels the one thousand ravers found a ‘Marketplace of Human Interaction and Connectivity’ – “kind of like a Blade Runner scene” says Pearson. Cyberdog style stalls offered futuristic make-overs; augmented headsets created placebo drug effects; and audio from Dambrin advised on how to navigate a party, eye contact included. There was also a 30-metre track suspended from the roof and running a massive piece of kit just two metres above people’s heads, sending laser projections throughout the space.
“A lot of this is about disorientation,” Pearson explains. “In the same way that when you take drugs, you end up just sort of rolling with what’s happening.” So, after 90 minutes of raving to techno, there was what he describes as a “meditative calming moment where we flood the room with light, very similar to the Anthony Gormley White Light installation.” A giant plastic sheet then dropped to reveal a secret fourth tunnel – Skepta’s performance space and the show’s piece de resistance.
“Skepta was very into being connected with the audience. So we thought about this idea of a democratic stage,” says Pearson. The results were something unprecedented in terms of live shows. The TEM team masterminded a transparent and floating two-storey stage where Skepta could be viewed in the round and from below, resulting in a front-row spot for all. “The only other person who’s done anything like it is Kanye,” says Pearson. “But he created a stage that separated him from the audience – a wall of light underneath him that excelled him to being like a god. Skepta wanted to be as close to the audience as possible.”
So the disparate team of experts came together to gift their collective nostalgia of the unifying joy of rave culture to a generation who’ve only ever known partying with the ‘Gram. “I wanted people to leave reminded of the joy of spending time together with other humans,” says King. 40 years from now, sweet harmony 2.0 could prove more necessary than ever before.