I’m not the kind of person who you’d normally find at an illegal rave at a regular raving time, let alone 9am on a Wednesday. But that’s where I found myself this week – virtually, anyway: with a haptic vest strapped on to my back, a controller in each hand and a virtual reality headset covering my eyes, I’m transported back to 1989, hooning through the suburbs with my friends to find a secret dancefloor.
Darren Emerson’s award-winning interactive VR film, In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats, tracks the acid-house movement and rave scene in Coventry, UK. It’s wholly transportive – I forget that I’m actually standing in the middle of an empty studio in metro Melbourne, because for half an hour I’m in the back of a car, in a friend’s poster-strewn bedroom, in a police station, hurtling down a freeway, bumping up against sweaty bodies in a club and walking through a forest hungover as the day breaks and the sun peeks through the trees.
It takes some time to get used to the controls, and the full range of motion and perspectives does make me dizzy. I quickly find a solution by sitting in a high chair so I can experience the full gamut of the film while also having some steady ground in real life.
Once I get the hang of it, it’s quite fun and the night ahead is literally in my hands. The film is awash with meticulous, loving detail, and it all comes alive through multiple senses: rooms are rendered in 360 degrees, meaning I can move through them to explore; with my virtual hands, I can pick up flyers and pamphlets; fellow ravers, promoters and police talk to me about their memories of the time, moments that are largely triggered by me picking up the leaflets, much like in a video game.
In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats is a full-body experience, so much so that at one point, standing in a room scattered with records, I navigate past one of my virtual friends to try to sit down on a couch, before realising it’s not actually there.
Suddenly I’m racing round the corner outside a dilapidated building to dodge the cops, then picking up a ringing payphone to find out exactly where the party’s at before jumping back in the car to get there.
But it’s the moments where it’s all about the music that the film is at its best. Tunes by scene heroes of the time such as Orbital and Neal Howard, alongside more modern tracks, accompany trippy visualisations that sometimes recall the aesthetics of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms. In a dingy warehouse, Joey Beltram’s 1990 track Energy Flash pulses through my headset and the haptic vest vibrates on my chest, recreating the familiar feeling of being at a gig where the bass is so loud you can feel it in your entire body. A yellow haze surrounds me as other bodies thrash euphorically around me. I look down at my virtual hands and realise I’m holding glow sticks – it’s cheesy, but makes me smile.
It’s hard to imagine this documentary being quite as effective in any other form – the immersive nature of VR makes it feel almost like a real-life experience. I feel nostalgic for something I never actually knew – 1989 was only a year after I was born – and I become strangely emotional as the car speeds away at the end, with me in the backseat. A voiceover describes the rave as the great equaliser – no matter who you are or where you come from, music is for everyone.
But, like a lot of VR, this is not for the faint-hearted or easily queasy. After it ends, much like coming down from an all-nighter, I’m horizontal for the rest of the day. Sometimes, virtual reality truly does imitate life.
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