On Physicality and Proximity or How “Live/Online” Shows Set the Screen for a New Club Culture

by Camilla Peeters

Futurism now is less a relation to a certain temporality invoking what comes after the present, but a distinct style affiliated with a certain affect. 

 -Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs

Grieve as we might for lost, less troubled times — the reality of which we should seriously question — we also have to deal with the cultural paradigm shift that is taking place right in front of us. Changes that could not have been imagined before lockdown, save by a few experimentalists, are now being realized over the span of a mere few months.

A great place to measure these changes are in the various international club scenes, not only because club culture is partly defined by the physical spaces in which it grows and mutates, but definitively because of the importance of the notion of proximity, which until now was mostly defined in club culture as the physical intimacy of bodies dancing and sweating next to each other. This physicality and proximity were the first among other major themes that had to be reinvented almost completely, and radically at that.

Whether through imperfection, glitches, or plurality, club culture did not die in 2020. No hierarchy intended, with this list I want to highlight some of the most powerful live/online performances.

Swan Screaming and Simulacrum Shows

Charli XCX

While the NUXXE Label was busy hiding in the shadows and taking a more subdued approach — Shygirl in the studio recording “Alias”, practically making us beg on bare knees for a hot club night, and Sega Bodega under-his-bedsheets posting his online cover series Reestablishing Connection with Dorian Electra, oklou and Eartheater — the musicians over at the PC Music headquarters took the spotlight.

Naturally PC Music, its brand being exactly a hyperreal, online fantasy, was not particularly taken aback by the sudden switch from real-life to PC events. Redefining the boundaries of experimental pop for years, they came prepared with eye-catching visuals and so, so many tracks. In August 2020, founding father A.G. Cook released a 49-track album 7G, alongside a zoom party that witnessed Caroline Polachek going for a Mrs Dalloway-style walk in the park, performing top notch hypnotic humming and screaming-at-swans.

For the holiday season of 2020, there was the festive Pop Carol festival, where under badly rendered sakura trees, Charli XCX and Cook appeared out of the blue to bring “Cold”, Santa’s version of “Warm” — complete with Michael Bublé peeping in the background.

Perhaps the highlight of the PC Music year was Appleville. Organised in September, no less than an entire festival dedicated to live computer music, featuring electro-giants such as Amnesia Scanner, Hannah Diamond and Namasenda, who brought the best (ánd first and only noteworthy) cover of Jason Derulo’s “Ridin’ Solo”, since the conception of the song.

Charli XCX performed an extended version of “Visions”, the outro of her lockdown album how i’m feeling now. While it is clearly stated that the performance is live, Charli somehow succeeds in singing steadily without a mic, while keeping her mouth closed and jumping into a pool.

This is the crux of a live/online PC Music performance. The only thing that is ‘live’ about it is the livestream of reactions in the sidebar. This does not mean the show is any less real. Embodying the simulacrum of the music industry, the artists of PC Music have no need to prove that they can perform ‘live’. There never was an original ‘live’ recording. Most of the PC Music artists make their music through computer programmes and sing through autotuned mics on- and off-stage. On top of that, like many pop artists, the whole persona of the artist might as well be hyperreal, as is the case with QT, a semi-fictitious pop singer and the human representation of an energy drink come to life, played by performance artist Hayden Francis Dunham with music produced by A. G. Cook and Sophie.

QT proves that PC Music’s musical development has not followed an arbitrary path. Rather, the core artists in the community have a highly conceptualized and deep understanding of what pop is today, even more than what it could be tomorrow. A. G. explained it himself in an interview with ARTE: “It’s funny talking about the future of pop… because, what I enjoy about the idea of futurism or a sci-fi approach of things is that it’s always a blatant exercise in looking at the present.”

Fundraising and Rollercoasters

food house

Tied less to labels than to their computer screens, in the States a whole host of young artists are taking over the experimental electronic scene, some of them hopping on the hyperpop-train, many going beyond, re-introducing much feared genres such as dubstep, europop and breakcore into avant-garde pop music.

A major event in April 2020 was Square Garden, a festival taking place in the Minecraft world hosted by weirdcore king and queen Dylan Brady and Laura Les from 100 gecs. Among many other things that would not be possible in an actual nightclub, one of the most outrageous moments included Danny L Harle trying to get his own set announced by his newborn child. Square Garden was one of many online festivals doubling as fundraisers for various causes, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ+ organisations.

The New Music Fest organized by the NYU Program Board New Music Committee of October 2020 showcased —maybe more so than Square Garden, more than half of its line-up consisting of PC Music veterans— accurately what live/online shows in the US are doing for club culture.

Notably, many of the artists at the Fest make use of a particular visual aesthetic. Not even fully recovered from their teenage years, these artists are making names for themselves by lip-syncing to their own music in front of a poorly executed green screen. Without an instrument in sight, Alice Gas is riding a rollercoaster on the glitchy display and high school friends-turned-experimental-band Guilt Trip Cluster Fuck are vibing in front of sped-up dancing nuns.

‘Poorly executed’ as, of course, an intentional effect and strategy. The low quality background footage (watermarks often still visible) and anything-but-crisp aura that encircles the musicians, delineating where Photo Booth ends and art begins, serve to bring about proximity in a non-obvious, dissonant way. Duo food house begin their set by addressing the audience, students of NYU: “You’re paying full tuition for zoom school, but at least you get to see us.” A diss followed by the realization that they are doing the same thing.

“Consciousness is strange these days”, reads a news ticker-style banner that adds yet another layer to Guilt Trip Cluster Fuck’s already overstimulating screen. The obvious and interesting performativity-over-virtuosity of these young avant-gardists will probably be looked down on by the majority of staunch self-proclaimed melomanians — a comment on food house’s high energy video reads: “How is this even possible…was it actually a live stream? …The autotune changes a couple times, is there a DJ correcting the pitch or something? How does one perform for almost half an hour without missing notes or taking breaks?

The impossibility of the performance is its most important characteristic. The ‘reality’ probably is that the set was pre-recorded and that the duo did not even have to meet in ‘real life’ to make this happen. This version of ‘reality’ is completely beside the point, though, for this performance-over-virtuosity live stream is no less real than a classical violin concerto. More importantly, the feelings these kinds of performances evoke are real, as much as they are hard to place in one steadfast category. Euphoria followed by jealousy, joy followed by depression, they co-exist rather than compete. These live/online shows are adding new affects to the club culture inventory of emotions.

The Stupors of an Empty Stomach

Esther

There is plenty of opposition to the at-home, ‘feigned’ low-quality experiments in the UK and the US. The most obvious opposing players being the clubs themselves. Taking a more conservative approach, though many Berlin clubs emit only radio silence, clubs like Hör and concert spaces like Altes Kraftwerk in Rummelsburg are continuously live streaming. Like a literal rave, minus the audience, DJs in Berlin prepare sets less adapted to the online medium.

Playing the most beloved Berlin genres, such as hard techno, hardcore, acid and EBM, these live sets often feel out of place. It is not enough to replace a live audience with a camera, broadcast DJs that look unsupported in empty rooms and call it a day. It evokes a weird nostalgic itch for club spaces, but one that is impossible to scratch, because the footage is not even archival, cannot even bring about sweet memories of  “better and easier” times. Only the bitter aftertaste is displayed on the screen.

With over a year of closed clubs, there is not even that much aftertaste left. Rather something like a tragic farce in Berlin, the emptiness of the clubs is more successfully exploited in France. Multidisciplinary platform Underscope is taking the spatiality of clubs to an extreme. At the Parisian music centre, La Gaité Lyrique, artists are performing distance and physicality in new ways. Aided by thick smoke, aggressive visuals and deep red lights, False Prpht and Daemon seem to inhabit a hellish landscape, the perfect widespread environment for their acidic and explosive noise rap.

Disconnecting the club space from its main purpose and transforming it into a performative space is a powerful strategy to connect with an online audience through different kinds of energies. While the gritty outbursts of noise blast through the tall halls of La Gaité Lyrique, the space itself becomes like a hungry monster, its empty stomach screaming and begging to be filled up again.

For Esther’s performance in La Gaité Lyrique a single dancer in low blue lights was given the task to fill the space. Her slow, pointed, almost hypnotic movements serve as a perfect response to the atmospheric drum and bass and industrial techno. Through the flashing lights, like lightning, energy is passed from music to dancer and vice versa. The expressivity of the music and movement create kinetic energy that stir the senses of any viewer at home.

Its region noted as “Streamland” on Resident Advisor, the online Refraction Festival in July 2020 sought to bring together the most forward thinking artists in the electronic scene. Among those were the artists of the Ugandan label Nyege Nyege Tapes, who played a three-hour set. A handheld camera in a different room, dark corners and hallways where artists fearlessly approach the camera and spit their bars in its face. The experience of the viewer approaches virtual/distorted reality.

Dancing in Distortion

Finally, there is Arca, EDM and Avant-garde’s love child. Her set for the online edition of Sonar in October 2020 is my personal favourite of the year. For the audience at home and for the select Sonar staff in the room with her alike, Arca creates a transgressive, genderfluid performance that is vulnerable and open in its sound, yet joyous and childlike in its execution.

As her persona multiplies in distorted waves on a screen behind her, the amplified screen-Arca is just as powerful as the ‘real’ one. Using different microphones for different vocal effects and different turntables, for no apparent reason other than as an inside joke, Arca climbs and struts around the stages, taking off layers of clothes, while the layers of identity behind her keep popping up and fading out. No need to solidify any part of who she is, her confidence floods the venue.

Performativity seems to be the red thread seeping through the sets that succeed most at pushing boundaries and creating new kinds of proximity. Artists redefining what club culture is right now efface or distort their own identity in order to connect with an audience, who they know very well are watching their show in various degrees of WiFi-quality, on small, often cheap or cracked screens.

Through relatability, an absurd sense of hilarity or just sheer kinetic energy, artists are finding new ways to foster connection and fan the small flame of hope that is still burning, awaiting better, more danceable times.


Camilla Peeters is an MA student in Film and Theatre Theory at the University of Antwerp. She writes on fringe film and experimental music, contributing to photogénie, Indiestyle and Subbacultcha, and DJs under her own first name. She can be found on Instagram @_cam_cool.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s