Losing Control of the Nightclub: Everybody in the Place
“The club is the haven, a place where you can be who you want to be,” says Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller near the start of Everybody in the Place. Dubbed “An Incomplete History of Britain 1984 – 1992,” Deller’s film documents a performative, participatory lecture he delivered to a class of 16-year-olds in London about the emergence of acid house music in the U.K. While essentially about the past, it also concerns itself with continuities, intending to involve the audience in an assessment of their shared present through the deconstruction of a past they are too young to have been a part of.
Commissioned by Frieze and Gucci as part of a series of films “exploring the year 1988’s enduring impact on international contemporary culture,” the film premiered in October at the Frieze Art Fair in London, a slightly stuffy setting for such a lively film. This March, it found a more suitable home at Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX festival—one of the world’s foremost sites for the discovery of creative documentary—where it was shown in a small, sweaty room with a rave afterward.
Deller’s project looks to reposition late ’80s rave culture not just as reckless abandon but as a radical act; and as something that emerged from a very specific political moment, where, after a sustained, ruinous period of conservative leadership, division and uncertainty prevailed. Considering the orientation of the project toward contemporary youth culture, it is no coincidence that this description is recognizable in the country’s current moment too.
The film’s opening sequence sets the tone, one that is nostalgic but not backward-looking. Shots of the students in class are cut between archival clips showing kids of about the same age at a rave, their school clothes swapped for a uniform of bucket hats and Adidas tracksuits. D-Shake’s “Techno Trance (Paradise Is Now)” rises on the soundtrack as the two scenes are cut back and forth. As they blend together, though three decades divide them, the two worlds start to seem not so far apart.
Talking to the class and using archival footage to illustrate his plainly stated, precisely positioned arguments, Deller proposes that it is pertinent that the popularization of acid house music in Britain ran parallel to the second half of the prime ministership (1979–1990) of Margaret Thatcher, emerging in the immediacy of the Miners’ Strike (1984–1985) and countryside protest movements as much as from inner-city factories and community centres. A genuinely new counterculture capable of bridging divisions, Deller argues that in a relatively short period, rave culture shifted the national consciousness, offering an opportunity of “being part of something” in a time of self-interest.
Showing the speed of this shift—in a sequence that is emblematic of the project’s wit and clarity, a condensation of an argument into two short pieces of contrapuntal visual material—Deller contrasts two clips from 1988 and 1990, both from The Hit Man and Her, a show about U.K. nightclubs hosted by music mogul Pete Waterman. In the first, a handful of smartly-dressed kids shuffle awkwardly in a brightly lit room; whilst in the second, a proper party—with sweat-soaked t-shirts, loose tongues, and eyes rolling—unfolds in the dark. At ease in the first, by the second, Waterman looks visibly distressed. “The world has collapsed around him,” Deller says wryly. “He’s lost control of the nightclub.”
“This is the kind of thing I watch on YouTube when I’m a bit down,” he says later, over footage of a rave reverie. “I’m happy I live on a planet where that happened once.” Deller’s project is straightforward and didactic by design, but it is also convincing, and his affection is infectious. Music offers a chance to “seize the means of production,” he notes early on, later offering the students the chance to do the same through mid-class music workshops.
By the time it ends, the film is as much about the students’ response to Deller’s arguments as the lecture itself. As an artist, his practice is usually collaborative. In Acid Brass (1997), he worked with a brass band to fuse their traditional music with acid house and techno; in The Battle of Orgreave (2001), a public re-enactment of a violent confrontation that occurred during the Miners’ Strike, he is seen collaborating with thousands of volunteers.
By making Everybody in the Place a workshop film, as participatory as it is pedagogical, he evades one pitfall he could easily have fallen into. Here, Deller is not a middle-aged man lecturing the young on how things used to be, but an artist facilitating a two-way exchange. As he lectures, he fields feedback from the students on his conclusions and whether or not they remain relevant to today, and asks for their reactions to the materials they view together. The film’s conclusion has students reading out YouTube comments from wistful ex-ravers, suggesting something stuck in the past, but as the credits roll, a classroom rave is started. Sined Roza’s “I Don't Know What It Is” blares out as strobe lights illuminate the students’ grinning faces. The past becomes present again; the kids take back control.