WE CAN not ESCAPE THE LAWS OF FASHION; A CONVERSATION WITH ARI VERSLUIS
Interview and words AICHA PILMEYER
Numéro had the chance to visit the underground exhibit ‘Sweet Harmony’, which is running for its last week. This is the second and last story in a series of two, where we discover the exhibition and have in-depth conversations. For the closing story, Numéro got the chance to speak with one of the artists from the exhibition: Ari Versluis. Documenting research on distinctive dress codes of various societal groups via photography and film is what he has been doing since the 1990s. We talk about his work within the exhibition. And cover topics such as emerging (sub)cultures and, the many layers of his work and identity.
The exhibition ‘Sweet Harmony’ explores rave culture and its creative expression. What is the essence of rave culture according to you?
I think rave culture plays with the notion of the social self. You are an individual, yet you exist by virtue of the Other. Together you make the choice to just dance, enjoy the music, and especially forget about time. This notion was a given in the nineties, but something that nowadays proves to be a new urgency. In current times, we are chained to time dictated by Apple or any other tech company. Unfortunately, we forget to listen to our hearts, our souls, and our wishes.
I think it’s essential to create places in which you let go and completely immerse yourself into the music, the rhythm, in which you can meet this other on the dance floor and think; “I have no idea who you are but it’s okay, feel as one”. As day moves into night, you enter these short relationships with these people, just for the moment and just for the sake of fun. It’s a contrast from the clearcut lifestyle machine which impacts the current atmosphere of parties nowadays. Everything has become an event industry: Oftentimes not organized by friends who want to have a good time, but by a company who wants to profit off of the fun. It’s shopping instead of this previously mentioned urgency; the urgency to forget about time, and to dance with anyone and everyone.
This inner drive is something that has survived the test of time; it has stayed and will stay. When going to Notting Hill carnival, you’ll see a ghetto blaster standing on the corner, blasting good music, and people dancing around it. This shows that you do not need an event planning agency, or big business to organize events. The only thing that counts in that moment is that place! a place where you come together and where time does not exist. A place where you let go of the self you are so conscious of, and with that front your social, true Self. I believe it to be important that in this lonely day and age you meet people, real people of flesh and blood, and sweat, float, and rave together. Raving is not only about techno music; it is to engage with any kind of music. To truly want to be with each other, is what’s most important.
Looking back, how different is the raving culture 40 years ago compared to now?
The main difference is that 40 years ago the pioneers of rave culture started to lay down the essence of what rave culture is nowadays. Pioneering is important for every type of expression, and also in rave culture. People want to be the original ones who came up with the ideas. I believe it should come from the younger generations, leaving behind the notions the older generations have dictated. At the beginning of rave culture, DIY was highly valued, and in my opinion, DIY never fades. Everything you do on your own, organize on your own, and create on your own is ten times more fun than when it’s being dictated by someone else.
The other day, an interviewer asked me about queer culture and safe spaces. I needed to think about it, as it is a legitimate question concerning the younger generations. However, from my perspective, I think who needs that place? Pick out any tree in any park and tell your friends to gather there every Friday. That’s it! What I mean to say is; let it happen, let it be spontaneous!
Take, for example, the atmosphere in Museumpark in Rotterdam. Chicks make beats and perform and ask for input from the local skaters who move around in front of them. That’s how it should be, that’s the fun of life! They found their tune and immediately they have a live audience. It’s all about that moment when suddenly the sun shines on your face and you think “I will do this myself”. The technology of today assists people to create in amazing ways, but it is the drive and the wish to create something that plays an important role. That’s what it is all about in my opinion.
When looking at the film ‘Dark Corners’, we get introduced to the protagonist. His movements and expressions seem frozen because of the flashing lights, which in turn makes the spectator look as if they are in a trance, completely immersed in the film. It makes me wonder, what has inspired you to make this film? Why did you choose to depict the movements in this particular way?
The movie originated in response to a VPRO documentary. My colleague Ellie Uyttenbroek and I were watching the rise of ‘gabber’ culture within our work for Exactitudes. From the start, I was thinking, “You actually have to see them move as well”. That happened with Lola da Musica – Gabbers a documentary I made for the VPRO in 1995. Later that footage came back, which I re-edited. I intended to, like you mentioned, captivate that fascination; that feeling of completely disappearing and losing yourself in the music. It took a couple of years to finish the edit since there was no rush behind it. See, the beauty of good music, and the youth’s obsession with certain types of music, is that you can press play and they’ll dance. Put on a certain song and they will rave, and transcend because they love it.
That is essentially what happened in this setting as well. Gabbers loved volume, so we made sure we had gigantic speakers on set, and it was time for them to blow us away. Everything that happened just happened.
How do you create a space for the person portrayed, so they authentically get to that moment, without it being forced or fabricated?
They become familiar faces in the studio. You have to create a bond or relationship with everyone you film or photograph, which is not as simple as it sounds. The trick is to engage in this relationship by meeting multiple times without pressure, which creates a sense of trust. The person of interest needs to make sure they really want this: Maybe they are a tad nervous the first time and it doesn’t work, however, it might work a second or even a third time.
An important aspect of Dark Corners is that it comes from an age before social media. That is the essence. It was a time when camcorders just came on the market, and people just started to experiment with them. However, not in the way people do now. Nowadays, it seems more performative. People are aware of how they move, how they look, how to look into a camera, and how to portray themselves in the way they want to be portrayed. Back then that wasn’t the case, and so there is a big difference in how someone lets themself go to that feeling of their true selves. If you make a portrait of someone nowadays it has to be right in every sense of the word, even legally speaking. Back then, you just did it; it truly was a DIY age. I am not saying that everything was better then, but the idea we had in mind, of sincerely displaying that authenticity, was easier and faster to realize.
So because people are aware of themselves and the person they want to be perceived as, it’s more difficult to capture that sense of being real, unadulterated?
Everything I do has to have a certain degree of realness embedded in it. It has to make sense: the language of fashion needs to make sense and how the person is portrayed needs to make sense. It has to be carried out by the community from which it originates, and that’s not easy.
So yes, even if you want to create that sense of being real, the younger generation is so different than what it once was. It is now accepted to think you are a person with different layers, that you can show different sides of yourself to your friends, your synthetic self. Multiple names, multiple looks, looks for the day, looks for the night, looks for work. Years ago you were just one identity for a while, for example, Gabber, until you became an adult and started to make certain choices.
Do you think people are more inclined to ‘mirror’ themselves to their surroundings as they did back then?
There is also way more to mirror globally, and digitally as well. Our cities have become cities of true diversity; the language of the streets encapsulates everything. I often think that the Netherlands does not fully realize how unique and special we are in this regard. Our cities are basically one big laboratory, which makes me incredibly happy. Everyone speaks their own language through fashion with their own unique combinations and ways of wearing certain items of clothing. To me, it seems like a breathtaking poem I am observing. It is fresh, it is sparkling. I just came back from Milan where the scene of the streets is monotone in my opinion, which is such a contrast from the fabulous street scene of the Netherlands.
Why do you think we don’t realize how unique the Netherlands is?
You have to let your eyes wander. To look and to observe is to research. You have to remember what you see and how you see it. Unfortunately, people do not truly look. They see an image, and they conclude an opinion, but there is more to it than that: You have to analyze and look at the entire picture. Look at the quality of the fabric, look at the way it moves, how it is being used. Certain sayings, movements, postures, behavior: it is all worth analyzing. You have to look and observe, especially at a time when everything is essentially a performative play.
This happens also on the streets; everyone plays a role. Young people especially know which role they play when they pick that role: “This is me!”. Maybe half a year later they change their minds and choose a different part to play, and there is nothing more beautiful than that. If you don’t see this, then your image of the Netherlands is a stereotypical one. It happens everywhere it happens in the farmlands, it happens in suburbs, but you have to want to see it.
Try to see Dutch fashion as a kind of laboratory in which you bring people together and create a vibe. It’s a tale as old as time that people want to belong to something, that hasn’t changed. Young is young and old is old. The only difference now is that there are more choices to be made, more options to choose from. That goes for everything.
Approaching people in an intimate way is something you have been doing for years with your Exactitudes series. In this series, you show the power of observation and you share the concept of fashion as a language: Seeing clothes as the signifier of a constructed identity and the attempt to distinguish themselves from a group. How do you feel about the contradiction between individuality and uniformity?
That contradiction is inescapable. People think that they are unique, but if you analyze them you’ll see that that’s not the case. Naturally, people are impressionable, and every choice we make is the result of being influenced by the outside world. This is even more true nowadays. Before, you had to look for your own group, to which do I belong? Now, these groups are everywhere, you just have to open your phone and you’re getting sucked in.
Nevertheless, uniform identity is still important in the evolution from an adolescent to an adult, I just visited a high school in Amsterdam Zuid-Oost and you can really see differing styles: “This is what we do, this is what we don’t do, these are the brands we wear and these are the brands we don’t”. It’s all about the question: “To which group do I belong, what is cool?” And then you have the kids who go against the status quo, they are all trying to find their way but the question remains the same: “To which group do I belong?” This all has to do from where they came, where they are going, and what influences them.
Of course, this is something that has been happening for years, however, what to name these groups and to put them in the current times is something that has become more difficult. It might be easier to show instead, which is what Ellie and I are doing.
Sometimes it takes some time before you grasp how influential or defining certain styles are in relation to a particular period of time. You could think: “Wow, this is so characteristic for that time, it is trivial, this is the voice of that generation”, as the Gabbers were in the nineties. That is one of the main reasons why you should keep track of this, and film it because you don’t know how it progresses or what happens next. This is true for any kind of research, we cannot predict how it evolves. We could not predict Covid, we could not predict the war in Ukraine, we cannot predict the future and its endeavors. These events all had an impact, and they were all responded to. You cannot escape the laws of fashion. We just document and watch, and let history decide what it means in the end.
People love to belong, and now this can also happen with the help of a digital environment. If you are non-binary and live in a tiny town in Limburg for example, you can connect with an online community, which is extremely valuable. For people who are in their adolescence especially, this is incredibly empowering. They are strengthened by the expressions of others, who might not be there in the flesh but are supportive online. Eventually, everyone is looking for a community, a space where it is safe to be whomever you want to be.
The current times are being distinguished by the fact that everything is more fluid, everything is mixed together. Nevertheless, class difference is still a determining factor and makes a big difference regarding your future and how you’re being shaped to think. I’m truly convinced there is a lag, and that the fashion industry is poorly informed on what is actually happening in certain important areas. There is this pressure to constantly perform and finish collections that leave little to no room to do any kind of field research. I say, get out in the field, take three days to talk to people on the streets, and take the time to observe. Everyone wants to connect with and appeal to their target audience, however, you cannot perceive the interesting factors from an image: you have to experience it. Dare to meet them. Only then, do you get to see the smallest details, for example, the way someone ties their shoes.
Can fashion still act as a catalyst for change?
100%: it is a language, a catalyst. This is where new stuff happens. It could be things we turn out to despise and think are impossible. However, to the people who are doing it, it gives them power, gives them a backbone.
Language is always interwoven with this. The essence will always be: don’t judge, just look, that is the most important. Fashion is not the what, it’s the how. It doesn’t matter that you bought Balenciaga online, what matters is how you style and how you wear it. This catapults incredibly fast, especially in subcultures, which is why you have to be as quick as lighting and get up close and personal to experience this.
So subcultures still exist?
Everyone who tells you otherwise has the image of a British subculture in mind. It absolutely still exists, but it is not as rigid anymore. People can shift from one subculture to the other. In one weekend, or even one day, they can switch; how cool is that? To switch from online to offline, locally to globally, that’s what is so special about it.
Finishing off, the theme of our current issue is ‘metamorphosis’, which alludes to the process of change and transformation. How do you relate to this term?
Transformation is the power of this generation. You can just be yourself and find acceptance from the community in that. Transformation is painful and hard, which is why you need support and a community. there has to be a small circle of close people surrounding you that will give you a push in the right direction. That is way more important than a massive circle of people in your social media network. We have to get rid of the American, Neo-liberal way of thinking. There are limits as to how much you can transform, you really cannot manifest just anything. If transformation is part of an anti-capitalist domain, I think go, if it becomes part of a capitalist domain, I start to question it.
– It’s your last chance to visit the exhibition ‘Sweet Harmony’ at Het HEM before they close their doors on the 30th of October. You can buy the tickets online here
all photo’s CASSANDER EEFTINCK