Streams of Intimacy: The Problem with Boiler Room
Last weekend, I DJed a reunion party for my old residency (the old venue was destroyed when a 4x4 ploughed through the building one night). We rigged up in a small venue, the only lights being behind the decks or attached to the huge speakers at either side of us. Looking through the photos from the night as they circulated on social media, it becomes apparent very quickly that you can only see the other two DJs and myself in silhouette. We’d put the lights there out of convenience, but also with an implicit understanding that the important people there that night were not the three of us. It was the people on the dance floor. And in doing so we were carrying on a tradition that began in 1970 with David Mancuso. However, that tradition is now under threat. We need to talk about Boiler Room.
Living On Video
In her landmark book “Club Cultures”, an ethnographic study of dance music, Sarah Thornton posits the notion that one of the most important developments in dance music was the moment when the lights were directed at the audience/dancers/crowd instead of the DJ. In the book she aimed to make a point concerning “illuminating a culture that is supposed to take place in the dark”, but within the exposure of the dancers, comes a reduction in the visibility of the DJ. The DJ is no longer the focus of the proceedings, indeed clubbers often do not even dance towards the DJ, preferring to dance alone, or with friends, or simply in whatever space is available. Without invoking Derrida or Foucault too much here, it is possible to identify an inversion of power structures inherent in such a tactic. In a sense, focusing on the crowd empowers the crowd. Yet, these ideas are still worthy of discussion, perhaps now more than ever; particularly when considering how DJs are often treated and perceived on social media.
By far and a way the worst offender of the re-inversion of the power dynamic i.e. reinforcing the DJ as the centre of the experience, is Boiler Room. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve certainly been through at least one period of the “superstar DJ” straddling the millennium. And Boiler Room are not the only outfit broadcasting live streams of DJs performing live. Numerous Facebook live feed from clubs, and DJs themselves fall into the same trap. Even the generally dry and factual Resident Advisor gets in on the action, recently broadcasting the proceedings of Nuits Sonores. However, Boiler Room are perhaps the most prolific and most insidious. A quick hop over to BoilerRoom.tv sees them promoting recent streams from techno legend Surgeon, numerous streams from Dekmantel, and a feed of the latest flash in the pan Mall Grab playing Southbank smoking a cigarette (how edgy!). Yet I’m left wondering, what’s the point? Is this really how we now engage with dance music?
Now, I am fully aware that calling out something like Boiler Room via an academic blog is somewhat ironic. Something like Boiler Room that is ostensibly a bastion of both club culture posturing and pseudo-intellectualism isn’t exactly going to quake in its boots at the prospect of an analysis that draws on a bit of critical theory. But it’s also the most appropriate lens to approach it from. I’ve certainly been guilty of referring to it as a musical “emperors new clothes” and a stronghold of millennialist presentation, but there are criticisms that can be drawn from a deeper questioning of its so-called output.
So, what is the point of Boiler Room? There are three possible reasons it may exist, two of which can be argued to be somewhat favourable, with a third less savoury option. Additionally, its possible it is simply a promotional tool for the DJs and venues, but little interest lies in such discussion. We understand these concepts thoroughly, and any marketing textbook will tell you the importance of perceived exclusivity and restricting supply. But more interesting possible answers can be suggested for the Boiler Room’s success and general modus operandi.
1. It democratises the club experience.
Certainly a compelling argument, opening the door (albeit through video streaming) of exclusive club nights to people who aren’t part of the underground elite may allow for individuals to feel in some way connected to the larger whole of the community. Positioning the camera right ‘where the action is’ may be an attempt to bring the viewer into the space, breaking down the barriers of distance, time, and space. But does it really offer anything democratic? When we watch the Boiler Room we’re not really there, we’re not part of the action. We’re just observing bright young things self-consciously dancing, fully aware that they’re being streamed. Usually we don’t even watch in real time!
The act of documenting proceedings also prohibits behaviour. Clubs are sacred spaces, beyond the prying eyes of the law, of wider social norms. Indeed, if Hakim Bey is to be believed they’re temporary autonomous zones; momentary settlements that crop up for as long as the night lasts with their own fluid, indefinable codes of conduct. Breaking into these zones via digital means reduces the privacy and autonomy of the experience. Who really live streams their most private of moments? And who wants to watch strangers do coke or poppers behind Egyptian Lover? Berghain even goes as far as to put stickers over the cameras of people’s phones as they enter the club to maintain such anonymity, and have a strict no photo or video policy. Yes, you may be bathed in LED and laser lighting, but what happens in Berghain stays in Berghain. If anything, videoing the DJ and the crowd only restricts the behaviour. Observer effects are in abundance in any Boiler Room set. Crowd members stare glassy eyed into the camera, people smoke cigarettes to show anti-authoritarian leanings, and DJs rarely look up from their decks in a self-conscious miasma of exposure.
We’re sat at home. On a laptop. Watching this bizarre carnival unfold feeling entirely disconnected from the action, watching other people have a good time, while we slop baked beans on toast down ourselves. Democracy? No. Policed enjoyment? Maybe.
2. It demystifies the praxis of the DJ.
An interesting notion. Certainly, it’d be fascinating to see some of the best DJs in the world really get to grips with their craft, explore their decision making process, follow their train of thought, and watch them execute wonderfully intricate mixes for an hour. That sounds fantastic! But no. We never really see the decks in any detail, and the DJ is not there to share their craft, they’re there to make the audience dance. The experience isn’t demystified or allows light to be shed on the DJ. The presence of cameras changes nothing. Letting an audience behind the DJ and placing them in the centre of the crowd does nothing to change their praxis.
To be fair to other outlets (Resident Advisor particularly) often there are close-ups of the decks and the techniques on display. Here, information can be gleaned from scrutiny. Budding DJs can pick up tips and tricks from their idols, and some of the practice can be understood. Yet, they’re rarely the point of the stream. They’re incidental shots that flit between DJ looking serious while mixing, and crowds looking bewildered or bored at the presence of cameras.
3. It is a means of generating cultural capital.
Pierre Bourdieu would have a field day with Boiler Room. Allow me to be overtly cynical for one moment: watching a Boiler Room stream is like a rave in an Urban Outfitters. 90’s outfits, hipsterism and “over it” sentiments abound, with a DJ clearly aware of the bizarre nature of the situation stuck in the middle of London’s Shoreditch massive whooping at inappropriate moments. I’d argue the only reason the Boiler Room exists is to simply show off. The streams seem to revel in presentation, in shoving a dirty camera right into the middle of a secret and exposing it. Worse still, the audience seem to revel in such presentation. The existence of Boiler Room Knows What You Did Last Night and The People of Boiler Room youtube channel highlight the self-aware pseudo-intellectualism of the thing, and focuses on the worst of the proceedings.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. You only go to the Boiler Room nights to say you’ve been to the Boiler Room nights. You might watch yourself or text friends “Did you see me stroke Nina Kraviz hair last night?”. The phones shot above from a Boiler Room session speaks volumes as to the purpose of the nights. Not a single individual is engaging with the experience in an authentic manner, instead living the night through the mediating lens of the latest iPhone. What happens with those videos I wonder? Do they go on Facebook immediately to show just how cool and underground the individual is? Presentation is king at Boiler Room.
Maybe there is a deeper level though. Maybe, it’s about voyeurism? Perhaps it is about the watcher rather than the people in the space? The fact that Boiler Room recently partnered with Google to present a virtual reality experience gives us a clue as to the real purpose of the thing:
“Is it reality? With the Google Boiler Room Virtual Reality Experience, there is a world of beauty, culture and music to explore, whenever you want no matter where you are. We wanted to create a unique, individualised experience that celebrates the diversity and subversiveness of Berlin nightlife. Thanks to Boiler Room and Google’s latest foray into virtual reality, those who haven’t been able to experience the raw underground scene of Berlin now can.” – Boiler Room VR Experience
The promotional video for the VR experience makes my skin creep. Beautiful images of beautiful people dancing in otherworldly lights against the gritty streets of Berlin, interspersed with a shot of an inert figure almost comatose on a sofa disgusts me. It feels so lazy, and without effort. The shots in question are (and I mean this seriously) one step away from having the watcher drooling and masturbating listlessly.
I’ve spent this piece essentially denouncing any claim Boiler Room has to validity. It doesn’t demystify the DJ, you may be able to touch them (if you’re there) but you’re still, usually, watching a white guy twisting knobs you can’t quite see changing something you can’t put your finger on sonically. It doesn’t democratise the club, you’re still not there! Sherry Turkle famously suggested that “intimacy doesn’t scale” and that we are “alone together”. Boiler Room doesn’t offer an intimate experience. It offers you footage of people you don’t know and cannot ever connect with. It’s not some distributed subjectivity a la Anahid Kassabian, it’s the lonely crowd. Boiler Room has re-inverted the hierarchy of power once again, placing the DJ as the central pivot on which a night hangs, rather than the infinite microscopic actions and behaviours of each dancer in a club. It doesn’t offer us an experience, it steals it! It steals away our agency as clubbers, it removes our power as a crowd, and destroys the anonymity we enjoy under the fragmented glare of the glitter ball.