Interview: Chelsea-Louise Berlin

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to have an exhibit on display at the Saatchi, then wonder no more. We caught up with Chelsea-Louise Berlin who has been an archivist of the history of acid house and rave culture since the mid’ 80s and now holds a vast collection of flyers, badges, VIP membership passes and pop culture ephemera, a lot of which is currently featuring at the Saatchi Gallery’s Sweet Harmony: Rave | Today exhibition. LGBTQ Arts Review’s Amie Taylor loved chatting to her last week about the history of her work, her inspiration and her current exhibition.

AT: Tell us a little bit about you as an artist and how you started:

C-LB: I went to Chelsea School of Art, straight out of public school and when I left there I went in to interior design and furniture making, which was what I studied. That was fine for about a year or so, but then I got frustrated with the lack of opportunities within the company, and so I decided to move away from that and go in to making stuff. So I did some window dressing, prop making, banners for night clubs, t-shirt design; that type of thing. I did quite well out of it for a few years whilst living in squats and making ends meet, and it was during that time that I was clubbing a lot, that I started building my library, which is where the flyers came from. And my art was representative of what I was collecting in terms of popular culture. I was influenced by Warhol, Keith Haring, the whole hip-hop sprout movement and Japanese design of the time. So most of my work is very monochrome, black on white melanin, black on white spray; it doesn’t necessarily look like rave flyers, but it comes out of that DIY-rave mentality.

AT: And what do you hope people will take away from experiencing the exhibition?

C-LB: I think people of my generation, so people who were there during the second summer of love, and the years immediately after that, will probably have some euphoric memories, it will encourage a lot of reminiscing, they’ll think ‘oh my goodness I was there’ or ‘I did that.’ For younger people I think it will touch on what’s going on now. It will give them a link back to how everything they’ve grown up with, is linked to then.  And how the squat parties, warehouse movements, Extinction Rebellion and the activism of now, is reflected in what we were doing 30 years ago – there is no gap.

AT: How has the scene changed or shifted in those 30 years?

C-LB: It’s difficult for me, because I’m not a parent, but what I’ve seen from my friend’s kids is that it’s evolved. So after the rave scene went very commercial in the mid to late 90s, it then became the norm. Before 86/87 dance music was hardly thought of as a proper genre. Now if you turn the radio on, every other song, if not every song is dance music based. So there has been this evolving genre through the music industry, which has affected the fashion industry. All of the fashion we had back in the 80s is now really big again. Everything that goes around comes around, nothing’s new, it’s just an amalgamation of what has come before. And when we took on 60s and 70s fashion in to the mid 80s and early 90s, it seems now that the kids today are bringing the fashions of the 80s and 90s right up to date. 

AT: What originally drew you to the rave culture and what was it about it that spoke to you?

C-LB: Well I was drawn in to it because I was on the scene; by the scene I mean that I was living as an artist, I was associating with people in the music industry and art world. I was living in a squat, so I was around people who were activists. We spent most of our time in clubs; for 5 years I was clubbing nearly three or four nights a week, every single week. And the music evolved. We were all in to Hip-hop and Ramp, then we were in to Electro Funk. Then those merged together and house music and Acid House music appeared in those clubs, alongside the other music we were listening to. And we just got dragged along with it.  It was a tidal wave of new experience that you just couldn’t get enough of. 

AT: And how has it felt for you preparing for this exhibition? How long has it taken?

C-LB: It’s taken 13 days. I needed 8 weeks really –

AT: Wow, so on two levels, how has it been physically trying to get the exhibition ready, and how did it feel to see it once it was up?

C-LB: I have been suffering from huge amounts of anxiety and stress.  I wouldn’t say it was bad anxiety and stress, but I’m a perfectionist to the nth degree, everything has to be perfect, otherwise I can’t show it to anyone. It was hard, it was really hard and then when I got to the gallery on Tuesday with everything – there were four amazing technicians at the Saatchi to help me, and they took the stress away. They were so complementary about how it all looked.  It really was wonderful to see it. It’s 29 square metres of wall – I only ever got to see 3 square metres at a time, so I hadn’t seen it completed until it went up on the wall in the gallery.

AT: And how was that moment for you?

C-LB: It was overwhelming. I still haven’t really got to grips with it. When I went back this morning I was staring at it for ages, really trying to take in what I’d accomplished. For me it’s really important that other people get something from it; it’s useless to me unless it conveys something that people can take away with them. 

AT: You touched earlier on some artists who inspired you, but I wondered if there are any other inspirations, either in the art world, or beyond the art world who have inspired you to keep collecting and keep creating?

C-LB: One of my favourite artists is Keith Haring, who was a huge LGBTQ pioneer in the late 80s, immensely popular and famous. Warhol was a big influence. But Leonardo Da Vinci was one of my greatest influences, because he spanned so many different types of work; he was an artist, he was a painter, he was an inventor, a scientist, I’ve always been fascinated by someone who doesn’t categorise themselves, and although everyone thinks of him as just a painter, there was so much more to him as a human being. As an artist I don’t have a set genre of work that I do, I cross lots of different barriers and I try to create work that talks about my journey, as a trans woman firstly, but as a human being as well – that everybody can connect to. I think we spend a lot of time trying to categorise ourselves, and I like to categorise myself simply as a human being.

Chelsea-Louise’s piece is currently on display at The Saatchi Gallery, until the 29th September 2019.

SWEET HARMONY: RAVE | TODAY is an immersive retrospective exhibition devoted to presenting a revolutionary survey of rave culture through the voices and lenses of those who experienced it.” (© The Saatchi Website) – Book Now. 

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