things magazine / about / what's new? / archive / photos / projects / order
All in the mind?
caption link / issue index / archives
things 10
summer 1999
Chris van Scheltinga
All in the mind?

Ben Osborne: The A-Z of Club Culture
London: Sceptre, 1999, 341 pages, £6.99

Consider an object. Anything. You have just moved into your dream house and you are decorating. You have a theoretically infinite choice of things/objects/colours/layouts to use within this finite space that is now yours. And the constraints of that very finite budget, of course! Now consider a space. Let me be more specific: consider a nightclub (or discotheque, if you want to be retro). These are places where millions of people flock to every week (and no longer just on Friday and Saturday nights - midweek and Sunday clubbing is quite the fashion these days). Reading Ben Osborne's comprehensive club dictionary, The A-Z of Club Culture, you get quite a clear picture of how clubs affect people's lives. In a vivid and often amusing way, Osborne opens up the world of clubbing. He traces the origins of the bewildering range of different genres of music, ground-breaking DJs, music producers and, of course, the clubs themselves. from those hedonistic days of Seventies disco to the electronic madness of today. Quite often the true legends of today started off underground - a term now widely used to imply credible and non-commercial (which is, of course, nonsense, as all club ventures are, in fact, commercial). They begin to attract a loyal following and, as word spreads, so does the reputation of the club and the DJs... and a superclub is born. Ministry of Sound, Trade and Cream are just a few clubs that are now household names on the worldwide club circuit. All clubs offer clubbers a space of social interaction, great music (whatever your taste), lights and just general madness.

Clubs vigorously advertise their wares on ultra-designed flyers and posters, each trying to entice the clubber to part with the £10-20 entry fee. Superstar DJs! Brain-melting lasers and lightshows! 10,000 watt sound! Italian design-house interiors!...? Now that is one you are not likely to see too often. Venues generally fall into two basic categories. There are the huge, cavernous spaces and then there are the small, low-ceilinged, interconnected rooms. The former are  usually disused cinemas or theatres and often have a stage where the more exhibitionist clubber can dance or live shows are staged. Hanging above the heads of the clubbers are impressive lighting rigs, not dissimilar to those at elaborate rock concerts. They can take between one thousand and five thousand people. The second type of venue relies on the smaller, almost claustrophobic nature of the space to create a much more intimate party atmosphere. They have excellent acoustics and often a rather over-enthusiastic smoke machine. Lighting is restricted to a few strategically placed strobe lights and one or two lasers or coloured lights.

Venues are very tight when it comes to spending their profits on the interiors of their clubs. Most of them leave it up to the promoter of the various nights to hang up a few posters and have a slide projector on one wall. Here and there are a few places that inspire comments like sleek and modern, thought that usually translates as minimalist and empty. Still, I suppose that is better than out of date and dirty. A visit to any clubs toilets at around 4am is not the most edifying of experiences! As a dedicated clubber, I have occasionally caught myself wondering exactly why I find being in a dark basement with virtually no air conditioning even remotely pleasant. It is smoky, sweaty and a bit smelly; but hey, this is the best night ever! 

Consider another object. It is small, cheap, usually white and has a tiny picture stamped on one side. It is a pill and it contains a small amount of a substance called methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), which most of us know as Ecstasy, the designer drug of the Nineties. Ecstasy can produce intense feelings of well-being, increase sensual and visual perception and give the you an abundance of energy. On the other hand, those little white pills could be expensive placebos, or fatal cocktails of unknown origin. Thinking about it, you could say that Ecstasy is one of the most successful consumer products, in the real sense of the word, of the decade: is it not a salesman's dream to have a product that has punters coming back for more even when it does not live up to its consumer promise? It is loved and hated, deplored and defended. 

In shaping the places where we like to be, we form ideas and place physical manifestations of them around ourselves to create a sense of well-being and beauty. Although we never really stop decorating (it's a constantly evolving experiment), it does reach a stage of equilibrium at some point. A point where we feel totally comfortable and at ease with the way that we have used this space. Adding or removing are purely mathematical and do not change the overall equation. Throw creativity into the mix and you have the essence of design and decorating. 

Is there really that much difference between changing your space and changing the way you perceive it? The nondescript surroundings in most nightclubs suggests there isn't. For clubbers, once their chosen high has kicked in, the relatively featureless space becomes something more. Nothing has physically changed; it all comes from within. It could be argued that the drug lowers aesthetic sensitivity, but this is not strictly true. The brain redefines its comfort zone, with mind-altering substances as alternative decorating tools! Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder, and when that eye is hugely dilated and sensitive to light (and tricks of the light), beauty is redefined. Anything can become something of great significance. Beauty can come from anywhere. 

Now I am certainly not suggesting that you decorate your home or, God forbid, your workplace, with the constant consumption of substances! But, suitably primed, users may be able to achieve some previously impossible design feats. Imagine being in a room that is suddenly huge, then smaller than before. The walls might ripple like the gentle waves on a lake. Colours on the wallpaper might shift and change, never remaining the same. These changes are usually random and uncontrollable, and are, I understand, probably more common with the use of ketamine or LSD, rather than Ecstasy. Going to the same club week after week, for many habitus, actually becomes a different journey each time (I guess it's not called tripping for nothing). In this chemical-fuelled world of decadence, design becomes truly interior.

things 10, summer 1999

back to top of page