In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats @ FACT – review

Source: FACT Liverpool. Credit: Mark McNulty

In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats (2021) @ FACT Liverpool. Credit: Mark McNulty

2023 may feel like a strange time to be a creative. Technology is evolving at speed and in new directions at a rate that will inevitably inspire concern in some, whilst others will be excited by the opportunity that the coming years may present them.

Virtual reality is among the shiny tools of the 21st Century with the potential to disrupt how we create and consume. But the vision many VR evangelists had for it, artistically and domestically, has stagnated. Headset sales are declining and the metaverse’s biggest stakeholder company has made massive lay-offs this year. Pricey products, buggy tech and unclear usefulness are contributing to VR’s slow down.

So, is VR just going to plateau now? Or will a breakthrough open our eyes to its potential? And what would that even look like?

If such a breakthrough is to happen, we should start with commissioning more pieces like Darren Emerson’s In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats – an interactive VR experience exhibited at FACT Liverpool earlier this month.

The piece, made by Emerson and his production company East City Films, essentially takes its audience on an adventure through Coventry, set on a night in 1989 during the early acid-house wave. Whilst wearing a headset, hand controllers, a haptic vest, in a room with only three other attendees, each audience member is transported from cars, to flats, to police stations, to warehouses on a dusk-til-dawn tour of the rave scene that gripped Coventry and changed Britain.

In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats (VR still). Courtesy of the artist and East City Films

Although lasting only 45 minutes, the experience packages up a narrative spanning not just one night in Coventry, but an entire era of British music culture. Each section of the story will be relatable to anyone that took part in the acid house scene of the late 80s and 90s – even the chapter in a Coventry police station, taking a look at the task force specifically set up to shut down these raves, will be familiar to anyone in law enforcement around the country at this time.

The piece is a mix of documentary, cinema and video game. One scene is set in a living room that’s a near-exact replica from the era, with the details of posters, beer bottle labels, desk items or bin contents making you feel fully engrossed in this time capsule. Then follows a more abstract chapter: a journey through trance-y dreamscapes, visually inspired by rave event flyers, where lights, patterns and house music are all that surround you. Lengthy research and challenging production were required to make this piece work – the further you navigate it, the more evident this becomes.

In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats (VR still). Courtesy of the artist and East City Films

The excitement and euphoria the journey elicits will stir something in anyone that has been clubbing. As someone who isn’t from Coventry, and wasn’t even alive in 1989, I still felt nostalgic for the time depicted. This is the piece’s greatest strength. In creating a virtual experience that is so believable, representing a moment that so many lived through and has shaped so much of our culture since, …Beats has a broad appeal and reminds us of the emotional connection we have to the music & culture that defines not only who we are as individuals, but who we are as a nation.

At the same time, it manages to strengthen Coventry’s role in the acid house context, and elevates the people and parties to something more prominent in the collective memory of acid house. If you’d never heard of Amnesia House before this experience, it’ll be firmly lodged in your brain after this. Given the financial difficulties affecting Coventry Culture Trust, who first presented this piece for the City of Culture in 2021, the success of this artwork feels even more valuable.

In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats (2021) @ FACT Liverpool. Credit: Mark McNulty

But it is the medium that makes this artwork truly outstanding. Choosing VR to tell the story creates a personal, focused experience that expands its emotional register. Much more than flicking through photos, watching VHS footage, or reading a memoir – by being on the journey of a Coventry raver and interacting with the virtual world, you feel the highs and the excitement more acutely. Your headphones pan the sounds coming from different directions. Air fans surround you to replicate the feeling of wind blowing against your body. The vest you wear vibrates to the beat of Orbital’s ‘Chime’. When the time comes for you to rave in a room of virtual strangers, you actually have the space to do so.

For anyone sceptical about VR, …Beats will show you just how much can be achieved through this technology. Not many works of art could be so sensitive to, and reflective of the facts and the lived experiences of acid house raving. That is largely thanks to the decision to immerse audiences in the virtual world that Emerson and his team have created.

…Beats demonstrates VR at its best, able to transport and transcend. Like any emerging technology, VR is an opportunity, not merely a threat. …Beats is proof that immersive, interactive VR has immense potential as an artform that can communicate histories and feelings just as well as any existing media – if not better.


Head to the East City Films site and sign up to their mailing list to find out when ‘In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats’ is touring near you, and stay up to date on new projects from Darren Emerson and his team.