Celebrating five years of Dalston's queerest, most hedonistic rave
Since queer techno rave INFERNO first opened its doors at Dalston Superstore five yeas ago, its brought the community together in untold ways.
Photography courtesy of Roxy Lee and The Inferno Archive
When queer techno rave INFERNO first opened its doors at Dalston Superstore five years ago, London’s club landscape looked different. “It was very white, gay and masculine,” says co-founder Lewis G. Burton, an acclaimed drag performance artist and musician in their own right. “Clubs were primarily playing house and disco music, with the exception of KAOS – although that was experimental, more noise than techno.”
Time after time, Lewis saw talented friends rejected from art institutions and stuck releasing music that went unappreciated and unplayed in clubs, especially queer ones. Frustrated, they teamed up with Sebastian Bartz -- also known as Venice Calypso -- to create a brand-new night, defined by its fusion of techno, performance and pure, unadulterated hedonism. Before long, many came flocking.
Five years later, INFERNO stands alongside collectives like Pxssy Palace and BBZ, which have overhauled queer nightlife by centring and celebrating the community’s most marginalised members. Safe space policies are now the rule as opposed to the exception, and queer events are thriving. “We’re really carving out our own platforms and voices,” says Lewis, who also works closely alongside Pxssy Palace. “Especially as a non-binary person, it’s been so important to platform queer and trans artists -- especially within techno, where queer femme DJs in particular are still rare.”
By avoiding press throughout the night’s formative years, INFERNO has also retained a sense of authenticity and resisted the kind of mainstreaming which often pushes out the people these nights are intended to centre.
Designer Charles Jeffrey's first experience came two years ago, at the first-ever INFERNO Summit: a two-day event of panels, performances and film screenings. “It brought the community together in a way I hadn’t seen,” he says. “We discussed issues we were facing, but also had a laugh at the same time. A few weeks later, we were head-banging and screaming in the dungeon that is East Bloc. A perfect combo, in my eyes!” Charles also says the night ties into the rise of darker, more extreme nights, with music that’s more aggressive. “I love that personally -- the speakers are bigger and louder, and the people are partying harder!”
The night’s popularity amongst fashion-lovers is well-documented. Creative, daring looks are highly encouraged, and venue staff are always briefed to ensure clubbers feel safe to let loose and go wild. “It’s an entire nightlife experience,” says DJ, and all-round icon of the queer scene Princess Julia. “Getting ready, getting there, getting in, getting into the music and the performance… it’s an entire underground community full of us! It really is a platform which embraces a sense of escapism, and also activism. It acknowledges our reality, but also works towards changing things.”
Positive change has undeniably come over the last five years, with conversations around misogyny, transphobia and racism in queer spaces prompting zero-tolerance door policies, trans and gender non-conforming taxi funds and sober parties. But an issue that remains is the lack of queer venues -- a lack which sometimes allows club-owners to profit from queer parties and then price out their founders.
“We’re lucky to have found amazing venues like The Yard Theatre and Mick’s Garage, who understand the struggle,” says Lewis. “We’re still running out of spaces, but another solution is to take over straight spaces and queer them up -- like we did earlier this year, with the incredible ICA takeover. But some venues are now charging ridiculous hire fees, like £3000! They’re charging for all of these random extras, and it’s really hindering parties looking for bigger venues.” These clubs are often happy to host queer parties and reap the rewards of a progressive reputation, but things aren’t always so generous behind-the-scenes.
This ties back into the white, gay, masculine focus that overwhelmingly prevailed five years ago and which remains the norm in some parts of the scene. Nights can make it their mission to draw in and nurture diverse crowds, but this isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
For Lewis, getting around this means acting as a sort of matriarch. Fecal Matter, the avant-garde Canadian design duo, have seen Lewis take this role in the past, INFERNO being one of their first ever DJ gigs. “So many in the scene see Lewis as somewhat of a guardian or a protector,” they wrote in their foreword for INFERNO's zine. “She is that bitch that you go to immediately after something horrible happens. Lewis knows what to do to make you feel safe… she’s a mother figure within this sometimes very shallow generation of rebels.”
As the night moves into its next chapter, Lewis will take the reins as its sole curator and move it into a more experimental musical direction, inspired by artists stretching the boundaries of genre to their limits. “Especially within queer dance music, artists are mixing techno with hard vogue beats, 90s rave and this dark, industrial sound, so it’s about bringing all of that together.” But they’re quick to acknowledge that they’re not doing it alone, instead welcoming a new generation into the fold.
When I ask what drove this decision, I’m met with their trademark cackle. “I’m getting old! I’ve got so many projects on the go and I’m not out on the scene as much, so it’s important to platform young people and not just believe that, just because I’ve been doing this for five years, I know everything and everyone.” They cite writer and model Emily Crooked as one of the team’s most important new members, reiterating that club nights only stay relevant when they move with the times. “I watered, curated and fed INFERNO so it could grow organically,” Lewis says, by way of a conclusion. “There’s an authenticity at the core of all of this, and I really believe that can’t be replicated.”
Photography courtesy of Roxy Lee and The Inferno Archive