All views expressed are that of the writer.

In her introduction to Free Your Body, McKenzie Wark, describes two rave scenes in The Matrix films. She notes the one in the first film, within the Matrix itself, before Neo ‘comes out’ and awakes into the real world. He’s shy, hiding at the edges of a leather-soaked rave we barely glimpse. Wark also notes a second rave in the second film, The Matrix Reloaded. This one takes place in the caverns of the real world, as Neo continues his trip to self-actualisation in a sweaty neo-Pagan burner party that relishes in bare flesh. But there’s actually a third, final rave in the trilogy that Wark has overlooked, at the beginning of The Matrix Revolutions, the final film in the original trilogy. Here, both audience and characters are all fully aware that the Matrix, in which it takes place, is virtual.

It’s my favourite in the series, and it reframes the series’ relation to rave and liberation in a crucial way. Trinity, Morpheus and a cypher named Seraph take an elevator down to a club, but by the time they’ve reached the coat check (helpfully labeled ‘Gun Check’), they’ve already started shooting. A handful of men are dispatched with ease and a signature Trinity leap-kick that perfectly echoes her iconic kick from the first film. The fight takes place, for no apparent reason besides style, upside-down on the ceiling. The bodies fall to the floor and only then does the trio enter the dance floor.

This rave is the first in the trilogy to embody in fullness the rave aesthetic around which the Wachowskis built the style and vibe of the Matrix – the latex and leather BDSM fever dreams of Berlin’s Berghain or KitKat Club, here amusingly named Club Hel. The DJ wears a gas mask and full body latex. It’s equally likely that a large part of the Wachowskis’ gender – Lana was just a year or so away from coming out as a woman, Lily a few more – emerged from spaces like that as well. In any case, this rave is at once the most purely ‘fun’ rave of the film, the most embodied, and yet at the same time, it is the rave as limit of liberation.

A person DJs surround by fairy lights

McKenzie Wark

I’d like to offer my own structural understanding of raves and clubs as a kind of artwork which center the movement and interactions of all the individuals present or invoked. A club is an environment framed by aesthetic decisions that enable or encourage interactions. Techno music, in The Matrix as in many a homosexual and transsexual rave, defines the pulse. Lighting design and lighting technicians amplify the music into a visual dimension and create a pleasurable disorientation. The fashion is nearly always at odds with a perceived ‘norm’ and yet always in close communication with the fashion of others at the events. It provides a sameness and an edginess at once. Dark rooms provide space for sex and drugs, to lower inhibitions and reframe perception, and so on.

Adding a couch in a certain point in space will alter the rave as both event and as image. The art of the rave is the art of social architecture. Or perhaps the rave is simply an expanded form of film, as the art form that combines a multitude of mediums. The space enables forms of interactions, encourages play with gender and sexuality and time, mixes groups of people and gives them a box in which to twirl. A rave is best critiqued and understood as the course its workers and attendees take through it, in their movements, thoughts, conversations and intercourse. That movement is, in the final tally, the artwork of the rave.

As art, it is an image of the actions it enables. A rave is always both a space of real possibilities happening and the image of those possibilities happening. It opens up forms of social interaction less possible elsewhere, running from both casual (homosexual) public sex to 10 hours of meditative dance and embodiment.

This rave is the first in the trilogy to embody in fullness the rave aesthetic around which the Wachowskis built the style and vibe of the Matrix – the latex and leather BDSM fever dreams of Berlin’s Berghain or KitKat Club...

For transsexual people, it is often the first place they were allowed to make their gender visible without fear of violence. Hence, it is often described as a liberatory space. It’s not for nothing that Stonewall, to invert the tired chestnut, was not just a riot but also, at first, a night of dancing. But just as Stonewall quickly became an image, albeit an often very useful one, the rave is always already an image. It cannot in itself provide lasting liberation.

In this third, final rave scene, the one in The Matrix Revolutions, there is no aesthetic divide between our heroes and our villains. Everyone is immaculate, everyone dressed the same, everyone is beautiful. The killings are done with ease. Our protagonists have become the icons into which the first film made them. It’s impossible not to think of the Wachowskis’ imminent arrival into womanhood mirrored in this entrance into the club – the space is finally theirs, utterly under their control. They have come into the fullness of themselves and are able to finally enjoy the party without either the timidness of the first Matrix or the histrionics of the second. They are, at last, ‘cool.’ When the club is understood in its fullness, its rules, its etiquettes, its limitations, its aesthetics and its possibilities, it is pure play.

The Matrix films are well-known for their obsession with images and representations and their relation to the real, for their name-dropping of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, with the Matrix as the simulation of The Real that masks the far more depressing real. The same obsession frames the Wachowskis’ motif of the rave and its relation to liberation. All three films indulge fully in the ethos that one hears so often to describe the rave, that it is a “temporary autonomous zone” of sorts, that it is a space of liberation amid capitalism, that it unlocks freedoms elsewhere impossible.

A dimly lit club scene

McKenzie Wark

But the films also contain a knowing understanding that the rave can only ever be an image of liberation, that it is delimited in advance. On one level this image is very simple – the Matrix, within the films, is a self-admittedly painful pleasure designed for control. A rave within the Matrix provides the escape route for Neo, but the rave exists within that control-image. A second rave occurs within “the real world,” but now it is an image not just within The Matrix as a conceit within the film but also within The Matrix, the film series. A third rave occurs, now in an image within an image, but with full awareness of that fact.

By now, the rave is almost unnecessary. The violent scene of action is now at the threshold, the coat check / gun check. The rave is an afterthought, though it is not without the joy of confidence. It is liberation as at once totally embodied and somehow rote. Encapsulated in this last dance, as it were, is the culmination of the films’ formal dance wherein body becomes symbol becomes body becomes symbol again and again. The “follow the white rabbit” party to which Trinity brings Neo carries him out of the realm of the symbol and into the body. The techno-paganist rave of The Matrix: Reloaded renders Neo’s body flesh-as-sex in the same moment as it renders sex-as-liberation and as image of liberation. Here is a move homosexuals and transsexuals know well both as the utter truth and as inevitable disappointment.

A club is an environment framed by aesthetic decisions that enable or encourage interactions. Techno music, in The Matrix as in many a homosexual and transsexual rave, defines the pulse.

But by the third time, in Club Hel, everything is on top of one another. Club Hel exists in virtual space, allowing our dancers to wear the clothes they can only dream of in the poverty of the real, but here no one mistakes it for the Real. It is the space of pure play and possibility, and it sows the seeds of its own end. There is, as always in the Matrix films, the echo of the transsexual body ringing in this digital room, of the freedom found in the symbol that the material flesh finds harder to find, and the knowledge that even as the symbol must be destroyed to make way for the real, the Matrix offers something the real cannot – the free interplay between body and symbol, between representation and reality, between image and self.

It’s worth noting that the controversial ending of The Matrix Revolutions had just upended the series’ mythology and called Neo’s legitimacy as chosen hero into question, leaving Morpheus and Trinity coasting on pure faith. The Matrix is “fake,” their collective hope in Neo as savior is “fake,” but Morpheus and Trinity persist – in the series’ lingo they “choose to believe.” The rave, understood as a constructed space of possibility, allows the choice of believing in a future that doesn’t exist. Their freedom to move and act with impunity within Club Hel is predicated on the Matrix’s status as synthetic and virtual, but their conviction in the legitimacy of their actions now hinges on a faith that has no referent in the virtual or the real.

This is the double-bind of the rave both in our world and the film’s world. Transsexuals in particular have often looked to the space of the club as the space of possibilities elsewhere foreclosed or made difficult, but when the club is the only space where those possibilities can exist, the image eats itself. If our conviction that the actions enabled by dance model our “true selves” is legitimate, it must be able to exist outside of the virtual world of the rave/Matrix. The club must be destroyed – or at least escaped – if the world it envisions as artwork is to exist as outside its structured formal space.

A person dancing behind DJ decks

McKenzie Wark

Anyone who spends too much time dancing until morning will discover the strange politics of that space, where the onanism of the space that can feel like the only space where things are possible eats the possible, where all our hopes and dreams are pinned to new permutations of nightlife space. If there is no space on the daytime streets of the city, then nightlife is both the beginning and the end. We haggle over entrance fees and scene politics because there is no other world in which our struggle can result in even those minor changes.

Trinity and Morpheus engaged in pointless shootouts at the door, a hyperbolic, violent double of the sorts of arguments at the door that happen at every good club, every good rave. Once inside, the dance prefigures a liberation that may never come to be. The same is true of cinema – far too many filmmakers fall into the trap of believing that their films can reshape the world, when all they can do is provide an image of a world. There is nothing liberatory in the world in the act of dancing or going to the cinema, but the possibilities opened in the gap between a body and the screen or the gaps between a body and other bodies when suffused with lights and music and chemicals are an image to be brought elsewhere.

If there were to be a fourth rave in The Matrix, what would it look like? How could the possibilities glimpsed in Club Hel survive in the real? Could the confidence of our black-clad trio exist outside of the formal rigour of the synthetic, pliable rubber that envelopes it? When one has mastered the rules of a formal image of liberation, how does one bring it, as it were, onto the streets?

The Matrix offers something the real cannot – the free interplay between body and symbol, between representation and reality, between image and self.

The Wachowskis can’t offer that yet – instead Lana Wachowski give us yet another twist in the recursion of sign and symbol in her fourth, self-consciously ‘meta’ film The Matrix Ressurrections. Character and narrative join the pure play of symbols, and liberation involves finding a thread of love between two people. As brilliant as that film is, and as touchingly as it speaks to aging as it relates to the image and liberation, we dancers and artists are perhaps also searching for something a little more immediate.

My small suggestion is that we perform a double-apprehension of our own. Once we acknowledge the rave and the cinema as something that formally models liberation rather than enacting it, we can both take further pleasure in that image and its limitations, and at the same time we can take that image as a seed of what could be everywhere, as we have always done implicitly.

Beyond that, this forces the question that perhaps should have been asked in the first place – what do we ask of our images of liberation? Trans people in particular have always held The Matrix series as an image of liberation – in its effortless vision of a very particular cool and the knowledge of its position in relation to its creators own gender transitions, we have held it as a form of poise and effortlessness to chase in the rest of our lives. But we can’t live in either the Matrix or The Matrix. We model ourselves at the dance, or in the beautiful archive of films and art left to us by our ancestors, but we must become artists ourselves and of ourselves.

The Matrix films are always conscious of their own limitations, of how freedom only exists in relation to the rules of the image-world they are trying to destroy. The rave contains its own sets of limitations, the formal rules of its artwork. If the rave offers new possibilities of interaction, of bodies unleashed in sexuality and gender and class-interplay, it can only do that under a space that requires and is undergirded by the financial incentives of capitalism that pay for its existence.

The ceiling of a club space with lights rigged

McKenzie Wark

Ravespace is one that requires labour, usually paid labour, to sustain itself. It relies upon a hyper-financialised urban real estate world in which to find cracks. A rave must always cater first and foremost to those with cash to burn, not those who get in free both because they most need it and because the aesthetic splendor of their divergent bodies and lifestyles is a crucial part of the image that in turn brings those people with cash to burn into the dance of relations. Beyond that tension, there is the simple tension that a rave cannot be an entire life – the body collapses. And someone has to make dinner.

The freedom the rave enables is subject to the rules of the rave, to its time and place, to its financial constraints, its social tensions and violences, and it’s at once combative and symbiotic relation to an outside world with its own cruelties and limits. The utopian imagination takes the rave as a form-of-life, as a temporary autonomous zone, as actually existing utopia. This is fundamentally untrue. The rave is a utopian film. I propose an art – of both rave and film – that indulges in the doubling of image and flesh. The image is not a lie, it is an image. To be an artist is to engage in labor, both for oneself and for others.

Transsexuality again provides a key here – the transsexual must work to serve the self he or she is or is becoming. She is product for both herself and for those who view her, but that self will require constant labor to maintain. It needs encounters with others like her, it needs medical procedures, it needs friends and lovers and cold-hard cash. But it also needs the dance, to remind itself of what it is becoming. To make the image last, to make the image bloom outside the frame, is one goal of art. If there is one lesson to be learned from Club Hel, it’s this: that which is virtual is actually a crucial component of the real. We must draw liberation out of the virtual, and into the real, let it last past when the lights go up and the dancers go home to rest.

If Morpheus and Trinity shoot up the malevolent gatekeepers of the rave and seek to bomb the entire structure in which it exists, they can still revel in the aesthetic possibilities of it while they are at it. So let’s indulge in all the tools of this fallen world of images to make more images, let’s make those images of freedom in a world where freedom is too often passing, but let’s never forget that even this utopian image we build together must also go. The dance must end but we’ll find newer ways to dance and to film.

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