Taken fromWIP magazine issue 04, SYNTHETIC MEMORY is an extensive dossier, marking the 30th anniversary of the “Second Summer of Love,” when Acid House exploded across the UK, while also examining the power of cultural nostalgia.
It hits at exactly seven minutes and 58 seconds of Mark Leckey’s 1999 video artwork, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. Initially, almost as a sort of wobbling, haunting organ sound, which follows a deep, booming voice listing brand names (mostly European sportswear labels and sneaker styles favored by the football casuals the artist grew up around). “Fila. Head. Kappa. Ellesse. Sergio Tacchini. Cerruti. Burberry and Aquascutum.”
The noise is a sample – chopped up and modified by Leckey – which appears in Kraftwerk’s “Spacelab” (1978), but one which my millennial ear recognized from a different source: LCD Soundsystem’s “45:33” (2006). Same source material, different usage. But allow me a moment of self-indulgence.
Of all the tracks that stand out from my teenage years, “45:33” is one that evokes more than any other. I first discovered it on a web forum populated by football casuals – a scene which by the late aughts was a shadow of its former self. It mostly served as a space for reminiscing amongst retired football hooligans, as well as chatting about clothes from the brands that were canon for the modern-day casual. Fjall Raven. Barbour. Stone Island. Adidas.
I found myself immersed in this world. It was a simulacrum of what had preceded it in the 1980s, when Leckey was coming of age, and the decade that followed. But it was still alluring. At its best, it provided a heady rush of nostalgia for an era and a culture I had never really experienced. It was all tied up in the idea that I’d missed out on something exciting, more glamorous even. Rucks, raves, and Raso Gommato – a near-impenetrable web of codes and signifiers, only intended to be understood by a few. And it was a thrill even to dance around the edges of it, to be tangentially related to something bigger, more storied, more significant.
And so, my first experiencing of Fiorucci, when that “Spacelab” sample hit – which at that point, I still thought was a LCD Soundsystem track – felt like the video was being haunted by a song released years after its conception. I was struck by an almost unnerving feeling, so strong was its weirdly personal link to my teenage obsessions. That those teenage years were focused on a certain subcultural nostalgia – the idea embedded at the very core of Fiorucci – would be classed as poor writing, such is its obvious neat link, were it not true.
Mark Leckey's 1999 video artwork, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore
The charm of Fiorucci, which was Leckey’s first real artwork, is its layered nature. It employs a series of nods and winks, bricolaging scenes and samples in a way which only few will fully grasp. This, however, does not detract from its power or energy. Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons – neither a regular at Wigan Casino in the 70s, nor on the Kop in the 80s – cites it as a defining influence on his work. But when a sound or an image flickers on the screen while one is watching the piece, and it’s something you do “get” or recognize, it creates this moment of exhilarating connection. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe, but it’s one that subcultures have traditionally been built on. It’s like a nod, or that momentary pause in eye contact when you recognize someone from a similar tribe in the street. At its most human element, it’s a connection to like-minded souls.
Fiorucci is not a comprehensive look at British subculture, but a poignant elegy for what once made the UK great. Not its politics, nor its imperialist history, but its working classes that brimmed with ingenuity and inimitable style, before their communities were laid waste to. More than any flag or grubby military conquest, it’s the Soul Boys, pilled-up Acid House revelers and Hardcore fanatics that are so much more worthy of celebration. But that’s only part of Fiorucci. It’s also about the power of image, its seductive qualities, and the idea of longing to experience epochs and events that came before us. As much as it’s a celebration of British subculture, it’s also a riposte to pathetically pining for a bygone era.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Fiorucci, and the thirtieth of the so-called “Second Summer of Love” in the UK. From Gucci campaigns to shows at the Saatchi gallery, rave culture of the late 80s and early 90s, which serves as the denouement of Fiorucci, has once again come into focus. Or perhaps not the culture, so much as a sepia-toned simulation of it. Consequently, there is no better person to speak to about this phenomenon of subcultural excavation than Leckey himself, who, for 20 years, has embraced it and tried to break free of it in equal measure.
Calum Gordon: Growing up, can you remember anything that first sparked your interest in visual arts or culture?
Mark Leckey: I always really liked visual culture. I guess I got introduced to it at different stages, the first one being fantasy. I was really into Lord of the Rings when I was a kid. I was into drawing fantasy landscapes and battle [scenes], very boyish stuff. Then, when I was a bit older, it was music. It was post-Punk ‘79 when I started getting into music, so it was all about the record sleeves and the album art. When I decided to go back to college, I had to redo my art A-level, and we learnt about pre-Renaissance, and I got really into the likes of Giotto, Renaissance, and then the pre-Raphaelite artists, which I still love. After that, it becomes about scale and mimicry, and that’s not that interesting to me.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of you releasing Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. At the time, did you think it would still resonate two decades on?
No! [Laughs] I thought it was a pile of shit when I made it! There’s always been this sense of terror, that when I make this piece of work, it will be laughed out of the room. I definitely felt that with Fiorucci. I remember thinking it was just cringeworthy. I thought I made something really sentimental and self-indulgent and nostalgic. I kind of thought that would be the reaction.
Why do you think you were so filled with nostalgia?
On an immediate level, it was because I had just come back from America. I had been living there, and I basically got homesick – so that kind of fermented nostalgic sentimentality about the UK. When I look back on it now, I think that it was something like a condition that happened in the late 90s in the UK, a sense of nostalgia that is now sort of reified into contemporary politics. I think it began with Britpop. I basically hold Britpop responsible for Brexit.
I’ve never heard it put like that, but I know a few people who hold Britpop in a similar regard.
That’s sort of why I made Fiorucci, because it was in a mix of all that. When I was in America, Britpop was huge, and I kept hearing about it all the time. I loathed it. I thought it was retrogressive bullshit. I didn’t understand why people were being celebrated for doing, you know, cod David Bowie songs, while Hardcore wasn’t. [Hardcore] to me was the most progressive avant-garde weird shit that wasn’t jungle. There was some respect for jungle, but only when it turned into intelligent drum and bass. But when it was really brutal, it wasn’t considered serious somehow.
That seems to be a tendency – that you need to intellectualize something before it’s viewed as valid.
Exactly. Which I think you can accuse me of doing as well.
Rave, right now, seems to be having a moment of cultural resurgence. Is it a particularly British thing to mythologize the past, and it’s just the rave era’s turn for that treatment now?
I think that’s part of it. It’s cyclical, isn’t it? The Saatchi show, or programs celebrating Woodstock right now, seem to be driven by the same sort of thing, which is to find an aspect, a particular moment of an era, and condense it. I think that’s what rave is becoming. It’s this kind of metonym, a metaphor for all these other things. It’s greater than the sum of its parts.
It also seems to be a very sanitized version of it. An aesthetic version, rather than something that goes deeper, that has that power to change the way people think, or to unite people.
It’s the same with Woodstock, isn’t it? That’s the thing for me, I came of age in the 70s, and Woodstock was in ‘69. It seemed like a lifetime away from me. I had this crippling sense of nostalgia for the 60s, for this time when I was just a child. I think it’s the same thing. The more value that people put upon it, the more it increases. That’s what I’m trying to say about it being condensed. It just starts to become this bloated body that just swells and swells and swells in terms of everyone’s corrupting love for it.
Do you think it’s healthy?
No! I think it’s fucking awful! [Laughs] I think it’s really bad. You know, Fiorucci isn’t about nostalgia, it’s about being seduced by nostalgia. The way that you’re trying to remember something, and when something is retrievable as an image, it becomes something else. It’s that something else that you become fixated by, and it’s not the thing in itself, it’s the representation of it. It’s about the representation of rave, not the actual thing. It took me a while to get that.
When you say it’s all sanitized, it’s because it’s got nothing really to do with the actual events or moments. It’s to do with representation, or with the power of the image of it, and what that has come to mean, because of all this investment that’s been put into it.
I think it’s interesting how the internet has allowed people to have a synthetic experience of a subculture that they didn’t live through. I grew up browsing football casual forums when they were a thing about ten years ago, and going through old Northern Soul records. Neither of them were subcultures that I ever experienced properly or authentically, but through various facets of the internet you are able to build this sort of nostalgic niche for yourself. I find it really interesting that you can do that now.
I’m trying to find a good way of putting this without sounding stupid, but I think it’s a condition produced by capitalism. It’s the production of imagery, of media, and it creates this condition that we’re calling nostalgia, but I think it’s something more than nostalgia, it’s a strange sense of loss or anxiety. It’s feeling that something is not quite right, so you fixate on this kind of moment when you think things were a bit more innocent, or free, or uncorrupted in some way. Which they weren’t. And I know that because I lived through those times, and I felt exactly the same then as you are talking about now. It’s always been like that, we’re in this loop of want and desire, and “I wish it was like that.”
The part of Fiorucci where it reels off the various names of luxury Italian sportswear brands and so on, sort of seemed to predict the future in a sense – people will build their entire identity by aligning themselves with a specific brand. How was it received at the time?
There’s a bunch of things there. One is that when I showed Fiorucci twenty years ago in the art world, there wasn’t really anybody else that knew about casuals. It was much more middle class than now, I think ... I could basically talk about casuals knowing that nobody in the art world knew about them. Or they would see it as this fearful hooligan thing. They wouldn’t think of them as having any sense of sophistication or intelligence. It’s something I still feel conflicted about – that I basically showed the art world something of another culture, you know what I mean? And I think that doesn’t really stand in the same way now. There's too many eyes on the art world. People have a voice now, it’s not like what it was twenty years ago, when it was a really small coterie of people. There still is a small coterie of people, but there’s a lot of people observing those people on social media and the rest of it.
The viewership of the art world has been democratized to a certain extent. I guess back then, casuals seemed almost exotic. Now, that reference point is probably interpreted differently because the audience has changed. Obviously, you’re an established artist now, you’re a dad, your frame of reference points have changed since the twenty-odd years that you’ve been creating work. What is it that excites you today, and which subject matters really drive you?
Same as it ever was, I think. I have two conversations about Fiorucci, basically. One conversation is about subculture, music, rave, and all the rest of it, and then the other conversation is what I was talking about before: how images seduce you. How you can get lost in them, how you can get overly invested in them. I left art school thinking I was never going to make art again, because I couldn’t. I really struggled, I couldn’t make anything in art school. When I was making Fiorucci, I wasn’t thinking about art. I made this thing because I needed to in some sense – with myself, with this nostalgia. And in doing so, I discovered a way of dealing with the kind of obsession that I have with images and things and what they do to me. It’s still the same drive, that’s what I’m trying to say.