On Techno, Dancing, and the Augmented Self

1997, 3 am. I’m sitting against the concrete wall of a dark, empty warehouse, off Hegenberger Road in Oakland. My body is vibrating—a strong, healthy kick drum beating hard against my chest. I squint and see the DJ behind a booth, flanked by black speakers that look like monoliths. Silhouettes are scattered about: strangers dancing alone, in open spaces or near the speakers, but also in tribes, moving within circles.

My pulse is racing, thumping at the same tempo as the techno blasting in this space. The beat is urgent, extending each moment—making now last longer. And it’s kinetic, frenetic—like a rubber ball bouncing round the room. My friend’s forearm grazes mine, warm and slick from perspiration. As we touch, I feel the reverberation of the sound on her skin. The music is so loud, as if we’re in the bowels of a manufacturing plant, listening to machines repeating the same tasks over and over. These sounds consume each second, not giving me much space to think about much else.

I watch a cluster of dancers on the far side of the room. From afar, I see a flutter of geometric parts, picture flipbook pages turning in front of me. The dancers move too swift for my eyes to follow, and I see tracers of their limbs in the air. I think of Duchamp: his nude, descending a staircase, flashes before me. It feels like I have several pairs of glasses stacked sloppily on my face, and I’m peeking through a kaleidoscope in the dark.

Glowing bits and streaks of neon green and yellow and pink are sprinkled throughout this darkness, creating a network of electric vertices floating in space. A series of lasers shoots out from the opposite wall, casting a grid of green lines above me. When I lift my arm to touch them, a pattern projects on my hand. I stare at the electrified crisscrossed bars superimposed on the creases of my palm and keep it raised, as if soaking in the charge.

A dense cloud sputters out from a smoke machine on the floor, and in this white puff a body materializes. Our friend is shifting within a sac, filled with a clear viscous substance. Only I can see this. Or perhaps others can see it. Or maybe they see something else.

I stare at him as he tries to break free. He gingerly pushes his elbows out, and then freezes for a moment, before rolling his left shoulder backward and then his right shoulder backward, loosening his upper half, pushing through this gel. He crouches slightly, pushes his left knee out and then his right knee out. He repeats these leg motions faster and with more force, appearing to walk forward in place as if on a speeding conveyor belt. Suddenly, he breaks free from the sac and begins to shuffle his feet, hardly lifting them off the ground. As he glides, he pushes his open palms away from him, and then retracts, his limbs like mechanical arms returning to their original positions. He pauses for a moment, then releases and unlocks his elbows. He is methodical, like a robot.

The human body can move this way.

The beat ceases, and a feathery sonic sweep, like the echo of an angel, envelops the room. The other dancers stop, but sway slightly. Tempted by this lull, I get up. Feeling metal springs on the bottoms of my sneakers, I bounce on the balls of my feet for a moment, then walk to an open space several feet from my friend. I glance at him, and the other dancers around us; their bodies, like mine, are still but taut. We subtly nod our heads in unison, listening to the frequencies—the layers of electricity churning to build up a charge—and wait for the next drop of the beat.

And the music builds: first, a sheet of ethereal white noise, then a tapestry of crisp sounds and a chorus of sirens, extending this moment of waiting—of longing for that pulse. The dancers around me cheer, whistle, raise their fists. One girl tosses her glow stick in the air, and I watch it rise, in slow motion, seeing the bone twirling in the sky in the beginning of 2001. As the tempo speeds up, I break off my gaze, and spring on the balls of my feet again. Sounds swirl around the room in a crescendo. I slink my hips to the left and the right, my arms swinging at my side, in the seconds before the track climaxes.

The beat drops. The entire room erupts. The glowing grid in which we’re all enmeshed shatters. I hop on top of the beat, like a nimble video game character jumping onto a moving target. My friend spins right as I twirl left, our alternating steps unplanned and automatic responses to one another. We never physically touch, but despite the open space between us, we are dancing together. It feels like a cable connects us, not just to each other but to all the dancers, to the sound system, as if everything is powered by a single source.

Outside these walls, the city is quiet and still. But here, in the innards of this place, another world has come alive.

* * * * *

That year, I remember spending more time on my parents’ computer—entertained by AOL chat rooms—than in front of the TV. It was a time when my high school friends were snagging internships at mysterious places called dot-coms, and when “technology” was suddenly everywhere. It was a gadget. A promising new career. An elite lifestyle. It all seemed really cool, but I didn’t understand much. Instead, I felt a sense of awe: of going online, of the vast World Wide Web, of the future.

Nathan Jurgenson writes that people now enmesh their physical and digital selves to the point where the distinction is becoming irrelevant. Looking back, my experiences in the electronic dance subculture fifteen years ago were my first encounters with the augmented self. There was no distinction between the physical and the digital on the dance floor, and the future materialized through that world in ways that I struggled to understand.

Today, when my nephews play video games with the Kinect—a motion sensor device allowing them to interact with an Xbox with their bodies instead of a controller—I think back to the Bay Area warehouse rave scene in the years before the millennium, just before the movement peaked. Of how “technology” materialized in a sensory, eye-opening way. Of how the warehouse morphed into a massive machine, its insides rumbling and churning with sounds that were primal and raw. Of how we responded to techno through dancing, using our bodies to show what the sound looked like, but also how a machine seemed to be dancing with and leading us.

It was a world in which we truly played with technology—where the field was level, and where everyone, no matter who they were or where they were from, had access to it. I came back to this place each weekend, as if returning to a womb to be reborn as an upgraded being—to interact in a frictionless realm where we allowed machines to manipulate our bodies like yo-yos, and where we responded to their maternal calls.

In Generation Ecstasy, music critic Simon Reynolds writes that while techno can be performed live, it is seldom born in real time. Instead, it is programmed and assembled sequence by sequence and layer by layer, using synthesizers, drum machines, and other electronic instruments. Later, it’s the dancer who actualizes the sound in physical space, who translates electronic into corporeal and sensual. “Techno is an immediacy machine,” writes Reynolds, “stretching time into a continuous present.” The beats that drove us were quick and constant—a hypnotizing measure of time itself—and dancing was an intimate, often carnal, yet largely public interpretation of what now looked like.

In that world, the DJ was revered, but he or she was a mere messenger of sound—a far cry from today’s on-stage performer at the helm with dance crews performing in light suits. Back then, the music was faceless, often stripped of vocals, controlled by no one. We did use tools to enhance the experience—glow sticks, for example, created the illusion of a continuous electrical flow while dancing—but we interpreted the sounds as we wanted, creating our own synaesthetic journeys on the dance floor. Immersed in the dark cosmos of cybertrance, whisked away at 160 BPM on a voyage through a wormhole, I would dance inside the beat, manifesting the trip with my own motions. As dancers matured alongside the scene, we came to see glow sticks as juvenile, as an unnecessary prop—we could attain that seamless physical-digital state on our own. Yet the glow stick remains an artifact of that enmeshed experience.

While you can still have this experience at today’s stadium-sized electronic dance music “concerts,” the dynamics have changed. With a stage and audiovisual setup, the music now has a face. Dancers have become spectators. We can interact with the sound, but the event seems controlled and contrived. There is less space, physically and mentally, to play; and it no longer feels like we are participating, collaborating, and creating as we once were.

For many years, I kept returning to that warehouse, where our shared encounters were organic, positive, even transcendent, and where my relationship to technology was symbiotic: it pumped life into me, but also needed me—my conductive body, my mind, my soul—to bring it to life. It was an augmented reality inside those walls, where physicality and technology intersected. A physical place of gyrating bodies, a space abuzz with technologies.

And in this world, the future was not a distant, fantastic vision. It was now, manifested in front of us, through us, and within us. Perhaps this is how we should think about technology: it is not a thing, but a flow—something we feel and breathe.

Cheri Lucas (@cherilucas) focuses on literary nonfiction and memoir on her blog, Writing Through the Fog, and explores ideas on the self, relationships, social media, memory, and home in a physical-digital world. She is based in San Francisco.