“Architecture to dance to” - Joe Muggs at London IA

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 19 December 2011

Last week we had the last London IA night of the year, as ever in the Sense Loft and kindly sponsored by Zebra People. Joe Muggs and Jim Kosem were speaking. Here are my notes from Joe’s talk.

Joe Muggs

Joe Muggs explained that his career as a music journalist had been about opening up “scenes” to a wider audience - explaining to people why a particular type of music isn’t difficult or impenetrable. Throughout his career, he said, he had worked with the people who make up “the fabric of music scenes” - the DJs, the promoters, and, it must be said, the drug dealers. Joe didn’t think “underground” should mean hidden.

He said that he had been introduced to the ideas of UX and product design by Ben Bashford, and that it had made him begun to think more about mechanisms and objects, and how music scenes might represent cultural manifestations of what designers do on a day-to-day basis.

I later heard the talk summarised as “social interaction is the ultimate product”, and Joe Muggs was suggesting that the rave scene of the 90s was a forerunner of the digital social networking of the 2000s - the first scene where you could make 500 friends, bump into them regularly, and know them by name. It was, he explained, very tribal - “I know the Nottingham lot” - but it channeled people together. They volunteered to spend eight hours in the same room together every week, listening to the same music, taking the same drugs, and dancing the same dance. Joe was keen, though, to distance himself from the idea that people were experiencing some mystical experience. He said he was dismissive of the ideas of people like Spiral Tribe hippies - “this isn’t the emergence of the Goddess from the ritual heart of the dance, this is just people dancing together.”

Joe began to wonder whether you couldn’t look at raves as an artwork without boundaries. At one level the artwork could be five people on the dance floor, at another it could be the whole dance floor or venue, and that spills out to two people standing leaning on a fridge at 5am in the morning talking about the event. He contrasted that with the tyranny of the ideas of rock‘n’roll from the fifties to the nineties, where the wisdom and information is imparted from the stage on high to the huddled masses below. In a tight-knit scene, everybody taking part is aware that their actions ripple out and affect everybody else - the slightest change in your dance moves, the slightest tweak to the sounds - these things get noticed.

Joe highlighted a couple of digital manifestations of the club experience. “Broadcast clubs” - the kind of things predicted by cyber-hippies in the 90s - now exist, where people watch the DJ and listen to the music and watch the dancing online, and have a virtual chat alongside it to join in the banter and ask for shout outs. In one sense it is a disconnected digital replica of the original, but in another, it is still very much focussed on the physical act of people participating and co-operating in a single physical space around a single music focus.

Joe Muggs argued that raving was a political statement about the kind of society people wanted to see. “God knows the dance scene has produced some arseholes” Joe said, but pointed out that these people regularly choose actions which are participatory and about social connections. They are not at home sitting on the sofa watching TV.

This Is My Jam got mentioned a few times as well - another collective music experience, but this time rather like the “slow food movement” but for DJing. Each participant in the site carefully picks out one track at a time, and they can be “your jam” for up to seven days. The intrigue is in thinking about why people have chosen that particular track to represent them at that particular time. And also discovering or re-discovering great music. The Guardian’s “Old music” blog series also walks in similar territory - ignoring the usual music journalism drive for new new new, instead pausing to reflect on individual old tracks.

Joe Muggs recalled the line - variously attributed - that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” He insisted that we do dance about architecture - that is why we have dance hall music and ballroom music and club music - styles of music that are defined by the architecture of the rooms in which they are listened to. “The people on the dance floor become moving architecture,” he said, “and architecture has powerful political and social effects.”

Next...

The other talk last week was from Jim Kosem, about making digital monuments. I’ll have my notes from that on the blog tomorrow.

London IA: Notes from the talks
Martin Belam, foreword by Ann McMeekin Carrier
London IA is a network of designers, information architects and thinkers. Since 2009 the group has been holding regular meetings featuring talks about UX, or of interest to UXers. This ebook is a compilation of my notes from those evenings, featuring talks by Andy Budd, Giles Colborne, Cennydd Bowles, Claire Rowland, Jason Mesut, Ben Bashford, Chris Heathcote, Dan Lockton, Relly Annett-Baker, Michael Blastland, Margaret Hanley and Richard Rutter amongst others. Topics covered range from ubicomp to psychology, from learning how to sketchnote to how to write a UX book, and how to improve digital design through diverse routes like copy-writing, designing for doubt, learning from music technology or taking care of typography.
London IA: Notes from the talks is available for Kindle for £2.47.

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