Labyrinths of Bliss: a rare survey of 1990s rave

London’s squat parties defined the counterculture of late-90s, post-Thatcherite Britain. The parties had it all: hedonism in spades, no laws, no rules, no dress code, limitless drugs and a soundtrack of pulsating Acid Techno.

But there was an ideological underpinning to the scene too that made these gatherings genuinely electric: these weren’t ‘just parties’, they were congregations of some of the day’s leading nonconformists, contrarians and dissidents, and they were a glorious, exuberant expression of rebellion against unchecked capitalism and its discontents.

The parties sprang up quick as weeds, and in the same places of neglect: most British city-centres in those days, of long economic hardship, had a bunch of abandoned buildings organisers could seize: empty schools, car-parks and supermarkets, bingo halls, tenements, office blocks and warehouse-squats.

These would be transformed into smokey, dreamy labyrinths, decked with huge tarps of fluorescence, pagan and futuristic iconography, with massive post-apocalyptic speakers and mixing desks hauled in.

As soon as the music started up, every corridor between sound-systems would be lined with dealers touting Ecstasy, LSD, Ketamine and amphetamine with all the coyness of a market-trader.

The parties would last for weeks, until an eviction order came, then the whole crazy circus would vanish like a magician’s conjuring trick — till the next venue was found.

It took imagination, graft and grit to turn those spaces into temporary temples, caves and labyrinths of bliss, and behind the parties were a motley bunch of characters, many of whom dedicated their lives to the scene.

They were hard as nails, knew how to play a wild game of cat-and-mouse with the police — and most wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Mad Max movie or some steampunk script.

Moving within such a wild and secretive scene was testing, and every photograph Adrian Fisk took to document it was hard-won. His rare archive was first shown at the Saatchi Gallery’s landmark survey of rave culture, Sweet Harmony: Rave | Today, in 2019.

Click here for Adrian Fisk website

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Annie Dare

Annie Dare

Strategy and words for people and planet.