BY Nathaniel Mellors in Frieze | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

Revolutions per minute

Mark Leckey

BY Nathaniel Mellors in Frieze | 10 OCT 01

The British take on hedonistic youth's collective fantasy is distinct from its American counterpart - both work well enough, but by comparison the British version looks a bit scruffy. There are cracks in its surface, and through these cracks you can sometimes see how the fantasy is held together. That's not to say rawness is a bad thing - we even celebrate and dance in the cracks and stretched seams as if they were the fantasy itself.

How do you write about youth culture without immediately sounding old, an outsider looking in? Artists and writers often emphasize their position within a scene in order to qualify their ability to speak with any kind of authority. Mark Leckey creates a world that operates from within music: music provides the work's method, and music culture provides the visual backdrop. In Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999) Leckey pieces together documentary footage from British dancehall history of the last 25 years. We bear witness to the succession of Rave's energetic gestures over the more fancy-footed and technically sure 1970s stack-shoed Northern Soul weekenders. His video sampling and editing removes the time gaps between the various dance events, exposing stylistic differences as mere details on the surface of a 24/7 dance that conflates the generation gaps of its various guises. Of all art forms, music is perhaps the most purely experiential; it's also to music's beautiful benefit that the listener has no choice but to sit inside it in order to get it. Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore is a history edited from the inside.

The 'hardcore' of street slang is an adjective emphasizing the ultra-actuality of an experience; it defines the aspirational space of Leckey's work. The musical definition of 'hardcore' is more specific: the British schism in the evolution of dance music that replaced Chicago's Acid House with the sound of Rave in the early 1990s. A shabby counterpart to its American antecedent, hardcore was mostly pieced together in bedrooms from pre-existing material using low-grade samplers. Through a pervasive ethos of accessibility, Rave defined the bedroom digital technology environment, which now extends its capacity beyond music to TV, film and video. The crude editing of Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore at one point someone's bird tattoo flies off into the freedom of a different disco mirrors that of the music.

We Are (Untitled) (2001) is a highly artificial fabrication that follows the life cycle of a night's partying. Formally, it relates to Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore anticipation, release, come-down in order to describe a generic, pan-generational experience of hedonistic escape. Its specifics, however, relate to the raw utopian aspirations of late 1980s and early 1990s Rave culture. At the beginning, we're faced with a deceptively blank looking screen; it is, in fact, a very dark room. There's a sound: a downward spiralling analogue synthesizer introduction to a track that, as a sense of tension mounts, is joined with sampled details to further build anticipation a wristwatch being wound, a mobile phone tone. The darkness is broken by a stroboscopic flash, beginning slowly and gradually speeding up. It illuminates details of bodies part of an arm, a leg. We piece together the sense of a room occupied by a youngish gang, who appear to be just standing around waiting for something to happen. As the atmosphere builds, so does a sense of unease: the combined effect of the group's awkwardness with each other and their appearance. Suddenly the lights switch on, and expectations are confirmed then confounded. We're faced with a bunch of mutant casuals standing together in someone's flat, waiting for the drugs and music to kick in. The clothes tracksuit bottoms, Reeboks, a puffa, lots of baseball caps appear normal enough, but the details are over-stretched and clash awkwardly. There's a market Moschino skirt; a girl's bad perm is revealed to be a lad in a bad wig wearing enormous gold-hoop earrings. Fake jewellery and designer sunglasses abound. Some of the people are a bit broken one carries a crutch, another has a bandaged nose.

We Are (Untitled) evokes, by association, memories of Rave at its most inflated, when its popularity exceeded suitable venues and it entered the sports halls and holiday camps of provincial Britain. It carried over its non-judgemental ideals of unity, and people of assorted creeds, colours and clothes came together in what might have been the movement's distended but wonderful zenith: a large-scale disregard of ideas of incorrectness and shabbiness in favour of celebration of the combined effect of the whole.

Back in the flat there's a sudden explosion in the centre of the room. Smoke, light, sound and dancing erupt: it's a joyful release. The group dance as one and in the final sequence sip cheap Dab lager, smoking and chatting through a come-down that's vaguely post-coital. But it's the music, timed perfectly to the situation, which seals the experience of this tiny venue, holding together the people who might otherwise collapse and fall apart. The track is hooky and propulsive, and although it has the feel of Speed Garage, it somehow avoids falling into any of the categories from which its parts are sourced. There's a drum loop, a vocal refrain, a plucked guitar riff and a rising and falling monophonic Acid bass line. The parts fade in and out of the mix, the vocals magically evading a coherent sentiment:

'This is what you do,

and this is what you do ...

You make me wanna ...

Before anything ... !'

British utopias come broken in the box but can generate some ineffable effects.

Nathaniel Mellors is an artist and musician. He is a co-founder of Junior Aspirin Records, a Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Art Practice at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK, and an advisor at the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He lives and works in Amsterdam and London. He is currently exhibiting ‘Ourhouse Episode 3 feat. BAD COPY’ at Salle de Bains, Lyon, France. Forthcoming solo exhibitions include Malmö Konsthall / C-salen, Sweden and MONITOR, Rome, Italy, in November 2012.