On a Thursday night back in July of this year, I got a text from Coby, a friend of mine, telling me he’s been asked to do an opening set with accompanying dancers at an augmented reality (AR) rave. I do a double take. Coby’s been on the up in the LA beats scene since he moved here last summer, so he’s an obvious fit for an event like this. The timing is crazy for an AR Rave, seeing as how VRLA had just announced their silent VR Rave—purportedly the first of its kind. Color me intrigued.
To sign up, I’m directed to an appropriately named website: www.itstimetohavefunagain.com. I noticed bold, futuristic claims such as: “A journey out from the end to the beginning,” and “Alt universe of sensory illumination.” I’m instructed to download the Ultratime app to enjoy the augmented portion of the event, so I do. Then all that’s left is to wait for Saturday night to roll around.
Once I arrive, I park on Hooper in downtown LA underneath a bright street light illuminating the nondescript stucco of Sam’s After Dark Club. I can already hear the subterranean echo of electronic music from down the block.
I walk inside BOXeight, passing a few racks of clothes. A lone stool offsets a brightly lit, all-white photo area. A bit further in I see an old Jeep Cherokee decked out in neon spray paint, and deeper still is the bar—a detached island peppered with small squares of paper bearing funky QR codes.
I find the stage in the back courtyard area. People mingle and head-bob to the warm-up jams. A beautiful piece of art divides a seating area, replete with pillows, from the rest of the space. In the back, a waterfall spout pours into a pool. The concrete enclosure retains the sound so well that it takes me a solid two minutes to notice the moon illuminating us through the open-air haze.
I step back inside for a drink. It strikes me how beautiful this space is—I’ve got nothing but love for grimy warehouse vibes, but the artful arrangement of the venue plays perfectly for an event designed to herald future technologies.
A tall bartender in high-waisted black shorts, a lace bra, and choker wrangles up beers and mixed drinks (with no small proportion of screwdrivers.) While waiting, I notice posters all over the exposed brick walls with similar codes as the ones on the bar, and it occurs to me these might not be in-theme decorations; they might be triggers. Why wait for the AR to come to you?
So I open Ultratime, hit “Mobile Handheld” mode and hold up one of the pieces of paper. After a moment, the trigger registers. An iridescent, psychedelic ball of light appears.
Of course, I’m not the first to discover this, nor the last. The crowd continues to expand, and more people begin to explore the extent of the AR component in similar fashion. A woman straddles a light near me, holding the paper between her legs. She angles and re-angles the trigger to achieve the optimal view, and when she finally succeeds, she lets out a satisfied, “Whoa.”
She leaves and zips back with a new poster with black-and-white concentric circles and the word ‘SUBMIT’ posted in the middle in red lettering. When her phone picks up the augmentation—a purple vortex—she lets out an even breathier “Whoa.” A man donning his own Cardboard comes over and looks at it with her.
He walks away. Finding she lacks the hands to hold both objects and interact with the augmentation, she looks my way. “Hey, you!” I drop my camera from my eye. “Can you hold this?” She holds the trigger up to me.
I oblige despite the awkward positioning. She reaches toward the augmentation and runs her fingers “through” it. “Thanks!” she says, hopping up to find new triggers. More costumes and wild outfits popped up. Two clowns in Polka dot jumpsuits, face paint, and bright Afros flit from place to place between bouts of posing with guests at the photo area.
An angel with illuminated wings makes a grand entrance.
Then Coby goes on, and the dancers take the stage. The interplay of choreographed dance and live music lends an air of spontaneous theatricality. Sisely Treasure, an all-around renaissance artist who also performs as Sisterwife, choreographed (and danced in) the performance. She explained how they came together to pull off this kind of organized spontaneity.
“We rehearsed in my living room using his YouTube clips to choreograph in sections,” Treasure told me after the event. “It was really difficult—Coby does everything live, and he played some of the songs totally different, but we still had a lot of fun adapting it live.”
Now the crowd is primed for the banner DJs: Steve Loria, Koolaid, Ron D Core, Blood Red, and Jacqueline Ledy. Two of these headliners, Koolaid and Ron D Core, also organized the event (along with Kari Lambou, aka Trauma, and TVI13. Treasure explained that these were no ordinary artists at the helm.
“These were some of the biggest DJs of the underground scene in Los Angeles,” said Treasure. “They were doing the coolest of the cool rave stuff happening in the ’90s.”
This is no exaggeration. Among many other respective accomplishments, Ron D Core is Founder and Co-Owner of the iconic Dr. Freecloud’s Record Shoppe and Koolaid, Stephen Hauptfuhr, founded Electric Daisy Carnival in the early ’90s. A lifelong lover of Disneyland, Hauptfuhr realized the intersection between electronic music and carnival culture and figured out how to combine the two in a way nobody ever had. Since then he’s worn plenty of other hats—including as the Williams sisters’ personal chef—MK Ultra marks a return to an old passion: creating cutting-edge live events.
“It’s kind of a weird anomaly that these people are starting to throw parties again,” said Treasure. “Now it’s morphed into something where the party is an art installation experience.”
AR played a big part in reigniting Hauptfuhr’s interest. Months back, he knew he wanted to throw a birthday bash of some sort. Meanwhile, his friend Jerry Hesketh, Co-Founder of Smart Digital Networks, Inc. and Executive Producer of TVI13, kept telling him about the exciting new AR tech he was encountering. Conversations got rolling and the rest is history.
“I’ve always tried to be innovative—that sounds so cheesy [laughs],” said Hauptfuhr. “I’ve always wanted to do something different just out of my own curiosity, and out of my own want for something new and different. I’ve always tried to push boundaries. I took a long break from throwing parties, and in a roundabout way I wanted to create something new by combining forces with AR, something I think will be interesting for a long time to come.”
MK Ultra isn’t about regurgitating past glories; the organizers and collaborators wanted to use the new possibilities embodied in AR to recapture the buzz of experiencing the very beginning of a whole new thing. A frontier moment.
“Back in the ’90s we had to drive to Dr. Freecloud’s in Costa Mesa, pick up a flier that had a number on it, call that number from a landline—a payphone—drive to the map point, get a map, pay for your ticket, and then drive to the weird warehouse that could get shut down in a couple hours. That’s how we did it,” said Treasure. “They were so secretive about it because they didn’t want it to get broken up, and then you end up at this sketchy warehouse with, like, two sets of speakers that are run by a couple of generators that are going in and out all night. It’s something that doesn’t exist in life anymore, you know?”
The days of payphones may be gone, but even with our webbed existence there’s plenty of room for surprise and spontaneity. One method Hauptfuhr sees, among many, is re-introduction of map points.
“I’d like to do something where people go to the map point, and then from there on we have triggers on the way where we’d have all this weird stuff going on on the street on the way to the party,” said Hauptfuhr. It sounds similar to Pokemon GO, or Ingress, both from Niantic Labs and Google.
And that’s just the beginning of the big plans swirling in their heads. But turning them into a reality takes time—both for the technology to develop and for people to acclimate to it. Even with the boost from Nintendo’s oft-discussed Pokemon darling, AR is still only beginning to infiltrate mainstream culture. Rather than trying to prescribe how it should be used, Hauptfuhr’s ethos with the new technology is to let people figure it out on their own, explore it on their own terms.
“There were a couple of times it was brought up in the planning of the party, where people were like, ‘Oh we should put markers and the ground, and tell people to stand here,’ and I was like, ‘No! This isn’t a walk-through of the Guggenheim or something,’” said Hauptfuhr. “I’m a very DIY person, so in my mind I expect people to just figure things out. I understand maybe I’m too far to the left, but I just ultimately didn’t want to put up a stanchion saying how to do it. The whole point of a rave is interacting with people.”
And AR is obviously going to revolutionize how we interact, so a rave is kind of the perfect place to socially “beta test” the technology, right? We’ve become quite accustomed to certain patterns of engagement in relation to our smartphones. Seeing people using Snapchat instead of diving into the AR—even once Cardboards started floating around to help partygoers fully immerse themselves while participating in the AR rave—was evidence that there’s still going to be a learning curve. Utilizing these objects to bring people together is something that can completely disrupt the nature of “screened” isolation in public.
One of the clowns, a friend of Hauptfuhr’s, was fixated on “saving” what he was experiencing.
“He was trying to figure out how he could preserve what he saw,” said Hauptfuhr. “And I was like, ‘No, that’s the point: it’s just in the moment!’ I’m sure you can take a screenshot or whatever, but the point is to actually experience it.”
As night crept into morning, the crowd got groovier, and more people started doing just that, compliments of some killer sets by legendary DJs. The hula hoops came out, as did the mermaids, who lounged by the back pool.
“So many people were really into it,” said Hauptfuhr. “A lot of people were coming up to me asking about this and that, just really excited to talk and learn more.”
After seeing the impact of this technology in a low-key, fun, live performance setting like this, the crew behind MK Ultra has its eyes toward future possibilities. Hauptfuhr is thrilled so many people were fascinated by AR and willing to engage with it, but as an artist who’s constantly looking to better himself and his work, he’s already plotting ways to put learning lessons to use.
“Everything you see at huge EDM shows right now, it kind of becomes like child’s play compared to this—you can create anything you want to in AR,” said Hauptfuhr. “There are so many possibilities with stage performance, it’s just incredible. You can have all kinds of triggers everywhere; for lack of a better term it’s like being on legal acid, you know? In the sense that you can literally have giant robots coming out of the speakers or bursting through the walls—basically whatever you can design in something like Unity can be a brought into the live environment.”
The randomness imbues a sense of emergent gameplay that Hauptfuhr craves for this type of event, and it’s what really gets him excited about integrating AR into his work. He’s most excited to figure out how to create parties where live dancers can interact with augmented elements, but he knows there’s still a lot to learn and fine-tune. Fortunately for the rest of us, he and his counterparts are the perfect people for the job. It’s never been about money for them (the party was free), it’s been about discovering new avenues of expression.
“It’s trying to bring that same kind of energy that people had and that excitement of doing something new and fresh that people aren’t doing,” said Treasure. “It’s one thing to just throw a warehouse party to get a bunch of people drunk and play good music or hire a DJ from Germany and get people dancing all night. It’s another thing to do something that just doesn’t exist—to continually try to do things that didn’t exist. Being part of a movement of things that are occurring in real time…you’re witnessing an evolution. You show up and you don’t really know what’s going to happen. You don’t know how people are going to react. So this is about creating that same excitement in a different way. Nobody was trying to get something out of that party, they were just expressing their art, doing it for the love of it, and having fun.”
There’s been so much discussion of how AR will change computing, education, and business, but let’s not forget its power in bringing us together for the simple purpose having a down-home good time. In a sense, that’s what the people behind MK Ultra have been doing for decades: “augmenting” reality by pioneering new ways for all of us to express ourselves.
Like any other rave, the crowd that filtered out around 5am was happy, tired, and sweaty. But unlike any other crowd in the history of event crowds I’ve seen, this one from an AR rave left considering all the possibilities of a new technology that’s about to completely alter the face of the planet.
Time to have fun again, indeed.
Jesse is a freelance writer with work appearing in publications such as The Huffington Post and IndieWire. Follow him on Twitter: @.