The Visual Language of the Rotterdam Techno Scene
About thirty years after the birth of the Techno genre, we will analyse the visual language that this scene portrays nowadays. The absence of literature on the visuals associated with the genre fosters the fascination of this research. Whereas cultural institutions such as museums have been analysed extensively, inquiry into the visual language of Techno clubs remains an uncultivated field, even though the latter are also cultural institutions, some of which considered spaces of ‘high culture’ such as Berghain in Berlin (Biehl-Missal, 2016; Garcia, 2011; Oltermann, 2016; Rose, 2016). Interpreting visual content has been a different way to analyse the Techno scene discourse: the ‘Techno soul’ maybe would have not emerged as clearly by focusing on the music only. Visuals are an important component of the Techno scene, with underground, industrial spaces being one of the peculiar characteristics of Techno venues. We believe that music is not the main component involved in the feelings of freedom experienced by the crowd. We refer to freedom as the power to act as one wants related to the annihilation of restriction. The design of spaces is not coincidental and Techno clubs can be said to work through an apparatus (the forms of knowledge/power that constitutes them) and technologies (a set of tools and methods) that produce a discourse and subjects specific to the Techno scene (Rose, 2015). Hereby, we consider spatial clues of equal importance to the music.
Considering both Rotterdam’s accessibility and importance in the development of the genre (the Dutch city gave birth to Gabber in the 1990s, a sous-genre of Techno music), Maassilo, a club residing in the city, served as our case study. Built in 1911, Maassilo used to be a grain factory with more than 3000 workers. It was converted into a club and venue space in 2003 (Maassilo, 2017). Equipped with high tech sound and light systems, this place regularly hosts Techno parties. Though the world capital of Techno is Berlin, Rotterdam shares many features with the German city. Both Rotterdam and Berlin were destroyed during the Second World War and then quickly rebuilt in the years after, relying heavily on an industrial type of economy. Maassilo has common features with Berlin’s renowned club Berghain. Both buildings are characterised by industrial architecture and include large and empty spaces. These are reused as multifunctional event venues that can welcome up to 5000 people (Maassilo, 2017).
By drawing on existing literature, interviews, and the analysis of visual cues found in Maassilo club, we will analyse the discourse of freedom that is portrayed by the visual language of the Techno scene. Firstly, the methods employed will be explained. Then, the available literature on the topic will be reviewed and the Techno scene will be framed according to the results of small-scale qualitative interviews. After, we will expose how the club’s architecture hints at a sense of freedom to its visitors. We will move on to expose how other concepts -rebellion, sociability, and intimacy- are fostered by freedom and by the environment. In parallel, we will offer a possible interpretation: each of the above mentioned notions is related to an opposed one; namely liquidarity, egoism, and individuality. Finally, we will place these binary themes in a bigger frame of contrasting concepts: freedom/constriction, dark/light.
To analyse the discourse upon freedom portrayed by Maassilo Techno scene, we followed Rose’s (2016) recommendations to use an eclectic variety of sources (texts, photographs, interviews, analysis of architecture, layout, staff and audience). Three Disc Jokeys (DJs) were interviewed to find out what experience they seek to create while working and what they look for when attending parties. Michel Schelvis, an Art professor and teacher in leisure management, was interviewed to understand the broader (historical) context of the Techno scene and genre. We physically experienced the scene by visiting Maassilo and collected pictures of the spaces along with video and audio records. We focused on different displays such as lights, architecture, decoration, people’s attitudes, movements, and appearance. In addition, we analysed flyers of the parties and Web pages of Maassilo.
All mentioned visual cues were used to understand what strategies organizers use to attract their crowd, and to interpret what discourse is conveyed by Maassilo’s environment.
It is important to note that visual methodologies in discourse analysis only allow to build an interpretation, and are intentionally not aimed at revealing any truth. Even though as visual analysts we have aimed to assemble a large amount of sources to build the findings presented here, it is important to underline that such findings are interpretations resulting from our and cited researches’ experience. Being strangers to the scene, we have immersed ourselves in Maassilo taking on a position –that of visual analysis- that has necessarily skewed our interpretation. Relevant literature was also selected on the basis of relatability to Maassilo, so no underground, outdoor, or smaller spaces were taken in consideration. It is clear that our analysis, even though drawing from research carried in other places, remains situated to the specific location we have chosen: Maassilo.
This literature review provides us with a theoretical framework for our research, and, by highlighting the central role of freedom in Techno music, justifies our choice to place freedom at the core of our own interpretation.
Framing the Techno Scene Discourse through Interviews
All interviewees agreed on the fact that a good DJ is aware of the entirety of their surroundings and that focusing only on music can be a mistake. While they all insisted on the role music plays in creating a sense of freedom, and thus support Garcia’s (2005) conclusions, we also noticed many visual aspects in Maassilo that hinted by themselves at freedom, sociability, and ecstatic feels. We will move on to analyse and interpret the visual data gathered to evaluate the DJs point of view.
Visual Cues & Freedom
When entering Maassilo, one finds oneself in a completely different atmosphere than that of an up-scale nightclub, perhaps filled with velvet carpets and chandeliers. After being checked by security, techno-goers walk down the stairs and enter a room of concrete walls where they can put their jackets in a locker. No one elegantly takes care of it for them. From there, the party goer follows the music and sneaks into the following room; a dark space where people sit and chat between old grain silos. The walls are grey, raw, and void of any decoration. One’s outfit does not have to match any particular colour. Neither does one need to conform to any particular style: people show up presenting their own way of being confident, there is no prerequisite. The space is neutral and its audience is meant to act as decoration.
Figure 1. Maassilo’s entrance (Maassilo, 2017)
Moving through the stairs, the spectator finds themself in front of a huge space where three impressively high ceiling rooms follow each-other. The light, projected on the people, is just dim enough to reveal the darkness of the brick walls. The gloomy environment enables any type of action. The dancers’ smallness compared to the volume of the space foster in them a feeling of vastness. The contrast between sizes is maybe the most powerful visual aspect; not only does it reminisce back at the romantic dilemma (human’s finite abilities constantly clashing with their infinite desires) but also reverses it (Fichte, 1846). Inside Maassilo, the finitude of one’s body and existence is immersed inside a space that gives hints of infinity. However, instead of letting oneself be oppressed by the vastness of the space, one lets one’s desires flow free. People scream, run, walk, jump on each other: one is dropped in an enormous playground, a different reality where everything seems allowed. This interpretation matches Biehl-Missal’s (2016), who, investigating the Berghain club’s architecture, pointed out that the alternation between massive and intimate spaces creates an ‘architecture of enabling’ (p.45). Maassilo’s vast rooms are flanked with smaller rooms where one can eat, chat, or smoke, and balconies are accessible. The constant switch of dimension between areas such as a small dark room and an immense dance room, fosters the dancers’ permissive attitudes. People move within the rooms performing unrestricted movements that are allowed by the design of the club.
Within Maassilo, freedom is not written on walls, nor spoken anywhere. As the analysis of lights, architecture, decoration, attitudes, movements, and appearances shows, it is possible to infer its existence from visual content. Fostered by the visual cues mentioned above, the sense of freedom leads to other concepts that are visually explicit: rebellion, sociability, and collectiveness.
The Rise of Rebellion
People that feel free are willing to transgress any type of restriction: they dance as they like, they talk to who they want, and they stand against society. Rebellion can be seen in the consumption of illegal drugs and in the participation in underground events. Looking at the flyers and the visual projections of MORD, one of the events hosted by Maassilo, one sees a raised closed fist. It can be said that through this powerful symbol, MORD invites its audience to rebel and inculcates the fist in its mind as the crowd dances.
Figure 2. Online Mord event tickets sale (Mord, 2017)Garcia (2005) argues that repetitive music can be characterized as transgressive and oppositional. Intrinsic to Techno music, repetition and uniformity both disrupt musical narrative and deny meaning, thus opposing the discourse of Western art music and producing a cultural rebellion and social rupture.
Dance, consequentially, is limited to a couple of repetitive movements each dancer decides to perform. The high complexity behind the DJ’s equipment is aimed at producing the most basic and primitive forms of music and dance as it was with the drum, argues Michel Schelvis. He calls this phenomenon ‘low life in high tech’ (personal communication, May 2017). The loss of musical arrangement is linked to the loss of the listener. The hypothesis is confirmed by Rietveld, who describes Techno as the dance in which to forget and to lose oneself: ‘the Dionysian ritual of obliteration, of disappearance’ (as cited in Thomas, 2003, p. 65). The Techno scene could be said to enable the dissolution of the self, something also sought for when taking drugs, and the freedom associated to the genre would thus be one in which the party-goer is freed from his ego (p. 66).
The rebellious aspect appears curious if we reflect upon the history of the event location. The initial factory closed because it could no longer fulfil its primary function due to the automatization of industrial production (Maassilo, 2019). It is interesting to notice that an automatized type of music gave a new purpose to the abandoned space. A location nowadays designed for liberation used to be filled with the sound of workers’ repetitive movements, almost as if their past is echoed in the present. The monotony of the mechanical movements reverberates both in the music and dance that are performed inside the club today. Thus, the meaning attributed to the symbolic repetitive action undergoes an abrupt change. In the modern times of Techno, monotony and repetition symbolize rebellion whereas when Maassilo was a factory, they symbolized alienation (Marx, 1872).
An Ambiguous Sociability
As rationality fades and leaves space for bodily experience, rebellion moves to the background and a vague intimacy steps forward. Garcia (2005) pointed out that this specific music scene displays a special sense of belonging coined as ‘liquidarity’ (p. 12). Liquidarity refers to the vague intimacy correlated to an “intensified social warmth” (p.13) generated and perpetuated by a shared set of intense bodily experiences that stimulate affect. Examples of bodily experiences are music climax, dancing, touching, crowded spaces, darkness and, not to be forgotten, drugs. The concept of liquidarity can be seen as opposed to rebellion as it is claimed to have a negative outcome upon the revolutionary attitudes of youth and on matters of inequality (Garcia, 2011). The ambiguous solidarity between different classes temporarily numbs frustration, violence, and anger without fixing any problem. Furthermore, liquidarity shines some light upon the type of sociability that takes place within a club. One sees people talking and people touching, one sees boundaries falling and diverse people engaging in intense conversation; but the effect is short term. The smoking room, a quieter space with steady light favouring sociability, provides us with an example of liquidarity. The absence of chairs and tables forces the smoker to sit on the ground or on the stairs. This deficiency enables one to join groups without appearing intrusive. Instead of asking permission to join a table with a finite number of seats around, one can casually rest on the stairs and participate in a conversation. However, it would seem that conversations enable intimacy by gathering strangers who are mainly motivated by the egoistic need to share self-related thoughts. As one pays attention to interactions, one notices that conversations jump from one topic to another and one realizes that talking overwhelms listening. Conversations appear ‘liquid’ as well, the construction of any solid bond through them is questionable.
Collectiveness & Individuality
Figure 3. Maassilo’s smoking room (Maassilo, 2017)Moving back to the dance floor, this time looked at through a bird’s eye view, a unique mass animated by a single rhythm appears. In the huge room, one can see a multitude of hands but is unable to distinguish anybody from the crowd: the experience appears collective. This movement resonates with the idea of Technoïds being One Big Family (Hitlzer & Pfandenhauer, 2002). Examining the crowd further, however, another idea emerges. Participants do not really pay attention to each other; they are into themselves, their eyes are closed, they are all dancing in a different way, expressing their own individuality. Michel Schelvis names this phenomenon ‘collective individualism’ (personal communication, May 2017), an expression which perfectly reflects the exposed idea: the clubber attends the party hoping to feel a piece of a unified community of dancers, but remains alone in his very own perception of the experience. The shared aspects are only external: music and space. Minuscule walls still exist between one and the crowd.
It seems as rebellion becomes liquidarity, high technology serves for basic sounds, sociability reveals short-term and egocentric interactions, and the collectiveness of the crowd hides individualistic personalities. We believe that this set of binary themes (rebellion/liquidarity, sociability/egoism, intimacy/individuality) can be placed within a bigger frame, constructed of two main binary themes: freedom & constriction, dark & light. At the core of the techno experience stands the feeling of freedom, sought after by the party goers during the night. The architecture, the setup, the darkness of the rooms, the consumption of drugs and the music, all hint at this emotion. Concepts such as sociability, intimacy and rebellion can be seen as expressions of freedom itself. However, the raver knows that the night will bring with itself also a sentiment of opposed kind: constriction. Constriction to pay for entrance (Maassilo parties are generally three times more expensive than others), and constriction of the well-lit bathroom, where tap water (essential substance to overcome the damages ecstasy has on human body) costs money.
Figure 4. Maassilo’s bathroom (Author, 2017)
Or the constriction of the security guard’s glance keeping the smoker room under surveillance. Or even of the light strobes flashing the crowd, hauntingly resembling those of a prison control tower.
As the night comes to a close, the inside lighting trades its panopticon-like flashes for a dull fluorescent light, signalling to the party-goers that it is time to re-enter reality. The sudden switch also represents how limited experience of freedom is, as it only lasts for a determined amount of time. The sun rises, the party is over, people take their bikes and go back home.
Figure 5. Light strobes illuminating the crowd (Maassilo, 2017) and beam light coming from a prison guard tower (Batman, 2013)
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