Immortalising dancefloor memories: Nightlife anecdotes and club flyer designs

To coincide with the opening on 1st March of the exhibition Designing the Night: Graphic design of Belgian club culture 1970-2000 at ADAM Brussels Design Museum, we team up with design historian and the show’s curator Katarina Serulus and ask a few committed archivists—from DJs and promoters to record collectors and record label heads—to submit their iconic club flyers and talk to us about the memorable moments linked to them.

Katerina Serulus, design historian and curator

Graphic design has long been a vital element of Belgian club culture: the signboard signalling the club’s entrance, flyers and posters that stir curiosity and anticipation for the upcoming party fun, membership cards that give the sense of belonging and privilege, drink menus and coupons that help to pick out and buy one’s favourite drink, decor that immerses you into a different universe. Design historians Cat Rossi and Jochen Eisenbrand consider the nightclub as one of the most important design spaces in contemporary culture, merging different creative disciplines into what they call a modern Gesamtkunstwerk. Together with light effects, sound, clothing, dance, interior design and architecture, graphic design is one of the many tools employed to create a shared temporary utopia allowing clubbers to escape everyday life.

By daybreak a flyer, poster or unused drink coupon is turned into one of the few physical reminders of the night before. This swift reversal leads fellow design historian Alice Twemlow to call club graphics “the most fleeting of formats in the already intrinsically transient medium of graphic design”. Once the quickly produced and consumed communication tools used to gather people in clubs, these graphic ephemera now reveal the wide range of lifestyles, graphic strategies, subcultures, music genres, identities and creativity fostered by club life at a certain point in time.

Jocelyne Coster, poster for Joy Division and Digital Dance at Plan K, Brussels, 1980. Collection Annik Honoré. Jocelyn Coster (c)

Easily one of the most iconic Belgian post-punk graphics. It was Jocelyne Coster, an art student at La Cambre, who made this legendary poster for Joy Division’s second show of at the Brussels-based venue Plan K. Housed in an abandoned former sugar refinery from the mid-19th century, Plan K was a multidisciplinary avantgarde venue in Brussels. It was established by a dance and theatre group with the same name that used the industrial décor with metal columns as a setting for diverse activities ranging from workshops, concerts, video exhibitions, dance shows, movies, and performances. Journalists Annik Honoré and Michel Duval were in charge of the musical programme in the early Plan K years and booked legendary punk and post-punk shows such as A Certain Ratio, Section 25, Echo & The Bunnyman, Front 242 and Joy Division’s very first gig outside the UK.

This poster plays with one of the most dominant punk tropes, namely the appropriation of pre-existing images. A found black and white image of three boys in tuxedos sitting at a table was cut out and glued against a grid. Red and black rub down lettering announcing Joy Division at Plan K finished the composition. This montage printed on cheap newsprint is now a highly sought out piece of punk memorabilia and is even featured in New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art’s collection.

Flyer for 3001 Demence Odyssey at La Demence, Brussels, 1996. Collection La Demence. Thierry Coppens (c)

The same digital technology that revolutionised music in the late 80s and 90s ignited the domain of graphic design. As Japanese-American graphic designer and curator Andrew Blauvelt explains, “graphic design was the first profession to be impacted by the introduction of the personal computer in the 1980s”. Clubbers, party promoters and DJs too started to experiment with digital tools to create the flashiest, most stylish and attractive flyers, posters and record sleeves. Many of the first techno graphics bear visual references to the newly available technology and image-processing programmes. Take for example the flyer promoting La Demence Odyssey in 1996, which evokes a computer window framing a digitally created world populated with spaceships, planets and cyborgs. The futuristic design does not only allude to the means of production of both the music played in the club and the digital layout of the flyer itself, but also to the hedonistic escape offered by clubs.

Poster for Nuit 1960 at Le Pluriel, Brussels, 1980. Collection Bruno Bulté. Bruno Bulté (c)

The body is central to the club experience. Flickering strobes, throbbing beats, atmospheric decors, drugs and alcohol are all hedonistic means to escape from everyday life and into the night. The body—sweating, smelling, moving—becomes an extension of the club’s spatial infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the human physique is one of the dominant tropes in club graphics: flyers and posters include references to body piercing, evoke of the corporal pleasures of drugs and play with cutout images of the human body.

Bruno Bulté, who trained as an architect in the early 70s at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Brussels, designed this poster for the short-lived Brussels club Le Pluriel (1979-1980). He found his source material for his artwork in the endless abundance of mass media, building his own image bank by cutting out scraps from magazines, newspapers and books that fascinated him. If needed, he could design in the mere space of a few hours a great poster by picking out and cutting up images from his collection and then adding some drawing and lettering.

Flyer for Soft Verdict, Bernthøler and Cold in the Head at Interferences, Brussels, 1984. Collection Les Disques du Crépuscule.

Interferences was a café-cum-venue, or brasserie cosmopolite established in Brussels in 1983 by innovative record label Les Disques du Crépuscule, founded by the aforementioned Honoré, Duval and graphic designer Benoît Hennebert three years prior. Situated just off of the Grand Place, Interferences was partly inspired by the opening of Manchester’s Haçienda by associated UK label Factory Records 18 months earlier. The small performance stage upstairs showcased an eclectic mix of artists: Billy MacKenzie of The Associates fame, Soft Verdict, Bernthøler, Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly, Anna Domino, The Neon Judgement, Blaine L. Reininger and Mikel Rouse and even veteran French composer Pierre Barouh. The labyrinth-like logo and elegant front window typography was created by Crépuscule’s design director Hennebert, but some of the gig flyers evidence a more DIY spirit: photocopied images combined with a handwritten logo and line-up, echoing the cheap, easy and fast anti-aesthetics of punk culture.

Flyer for Parties at Vaudeville, Brussels, 1994. Collection Philippe Motteux (Fifi).

Contrary to the club’s status as an autonomous space far removed from society and its alleged deficiencies, its visual language was rich in references to mainstream culture. A popular strategy was the tongue-in-cheek appropriation of corporate identities and advertising campaigns of hyper-capitalist companies. Indeed, consumer culture and its brands proved to be a particularly rich visual source. Pastiches on airplane tickets or passports played with the idea of in- and exclusion and suggested the club’s enclosed space as a different country or holiday destination; parodies of detergent or toothpaste brands capitalised on the bodily culture of clubbing; and the recycling of fashion brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton mocked the fashion industry’s exclusivity.

This design approach exposed the capitalist consumer society and its advertising system, but at the same time mobilised its strong visual language for its own promotion. Alice Twemlow describes this contradiction pointedly: “flyers sold addictive consumer behavior just as much as the advertisements and products they parodied” and were in that sense “the visual currency of an intricate system of club promoters, musicians and DJs.” The graphics in turn market an alternative form of community experienced through music, drugs and dance.

Pierre Noisiez, Fuse and Lessizmore

These 3D anaglyph glasses were designed for a Lessizmore party at Fuse in 2010. Next to this rather unusual flyer, we shared a 3D video teaser on social media and invited the audience to take their glasses with them at the party to enjoy more 3D visuals. Because today’s communication happens online almost exclusively, the existence of the flyer is increasingly threatened, which is a shame.

Soumaya Abouda, Soumaya Phéline

Before becoming a DJ and promoter I studied graphic design and typography, so visual communication and scenography is just as important to me as music is. Visual identities are crucial: the flyer is the first element to stimulate the audience’s interest in an event. I have a thing for paper flyers because they’re tangible. Unfortunately, Facebook’s presence is threatening their existence, and there’s not much we can do except to make a point of continuing to use them and choose other platforms.

These are the flyers of High Needs Low, parties I hosted at Brussels-Congress Station in 2008. I worked in close collaboration with visual artists such as Gay Haze’s Guillaume Bleret, Brussels-based artist Patrick Carpentier, Room 4 Resistance’s Luz Diaz, Luv Gang’s Davon and Pablo Saccomano, better known as Handless DJ. Jean-Biche designed the very first HNL flyer, and together we came up with the idea of bringing the content to life by creating a real-life setup. We applied this concept as a guideline for the following editions while working with design studios pleaseletmedesign and Troisbarrespoint, as well as artists like Steve Jakobs, Fabien Blaow, Pierre Debroux, Ulrike Biets, Esteban Gonzales, Michel Maes and myself. When I look back at these flyers, I remember the good old days, the friendships, the love and the many different encounters. We were able to create a party series that met all of our expectations and appealled to all of our senses.

Steven Keimi, New Beat collector

Although it’s not a piece of art, this flyer from a 1995 Teknoville party at Cherry Moon surely stands for a memorable night. You can still see the nail hole, a result of it being hung in my room. Lokeren’s Cherry Moon was my all-time favourite venue, and this party in question was organised by 5 voor 12, the guys behind Ghent’s 10 Days of Techno—now simply called 10 Days Off. Presale tickets were the only way to get in. I can still remember the House of House—as we used to call it—completely filled with ravers, lasers and speakers pumping 135bpm techno.

The headliners of this night were Moby and the godfather of German dance music Sven Väth, together with residents Yves Deruyter, The Fly and Zzinno while Mo & Benoelie and Digital Excitation were in charge of the chillout room. It was Moby’s first (live) performance in Belgium and he mixed together punk and techno, his old tracks and his then new album Everything Is Wrong. Then Sven Väth started his five-hour set with Ballet Fusion, followed by more German tracks that found their way to the Belgian music scene in the mid-90s. 25 years later, I still get goosebumps listening to his live set on YouTube.

The underground scene is still making waves today, and it won’t stop. However, flyers and dance music magazines like Outsoon are no longer the way to go—digital and social media have taken over the promo game. I also miss DJs playing longer sets, and I could do with a bit more visual elements at parties, like synchronised strobe lights. On top of that, I miss the days when there were no smartphones on the dancefloor; when you could just forget about everything and unleash your inner selves.

Michael Stordeur, Mike DMA

This flyer was designed for the opening night of Network, a club we launched in Brussels in July 1995. Network was the first club to assemble techno, house, deep house, acid, electro, jungle, triphop, brain dance, electronica, EBM and New Beat all under the same roof. Past and future were tightly woven together. This opening night was solely dedicated to our residents Deg and Psychogene. It’s pretty much impossible to organise an opening night with only locals on the line-up now, but we wanted to put them in the spotlight.

Fuse was at the time going through a forgotten period where they were searching for an identity, putting on more commercial trance parties in lieu of techno nights. It’s important to keep in mind that we all belonged to the one and only Brussels scene and that our fate was inextricably linked to Fuse at first. We indirectly participated in the club’s history with the first ever chillout and electronica rooms—then called Disque Rouge—as of 1992.

Today, due to the ubiquity of the Internet and its new platforms, print publications have practically disappeared from the shelves while Facebook events, newsletters and videos have completely taken over. That can be positive from an ecological standpoint: so many horrible flyers just end up in the rubbish anyway! But on a cultural and artistic level, we live in an era of irreversible loss. I believe the answer lies somewhere between the two. Technology and computer-assisted graphic design have evolved real fast over the past decades, but I’m yet to be properly impressed—probably because of the overly academic and restrained approach our art schools dole out. However, if you look at the work being done by illustrators, graffiti and tattoo artists, or video producers, there are some really amazing things going on. Will there ever be enough renegades to harness the power of what’s available? In the past, we tended to look towards the future for inspiration but now we’re here, people seem to be looking back at the past again.

Lieven de Ridder, Walhalla Records

This was the first minimal synth festival I organised and one of the first of its kind in Belgium. I started collecting this kind of music in the early 90s, and after years of digging was finally able to do it justice and give it a platform in 2006. We invited the top acts of the time: Oppenheimer Analysis from the UK and local legend Twilight Ritual, as well as a surprise act by American Martial Canterel performing for the very first time in Belgium. We had people coming from Germany, France, the Netherlands and even Greece. Truly a night to remember.

Ewald Dupan, Captain Starlight, Parels Voor de Zwijnen

I was somewhat of a regular at Ghent’s Culture Club around the time I was 18 in the early 00s, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Highschool were my favourite parties there. Those nights had a strong visual identity: think flyers in the format of 14 collector cards with the practical information on the back, reminiscent of a quartets card game. People would swap them around to complete their personal collections.

Jonas Boel, the man behind these parties must’ve known I was a fanboy, because he asked me to hand out some flyers in Brussels. One night I went to a concert in Ancienne Belgique and I came across the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. I gave her a flyer hoping she’d come to the party—I think it was the guest ticket with the naked man on it. Unfortunately, she never showed up. Little did I know that she was only 15 back then and her dad wouldn’t let her go to nightclubs. Some eight years later, we ran into each other in a bar in Brussels. She’s my girlfriend now.

Maurizio Ferrara, DJ Athome, Front de Cadeaux

Harrisson (c)

This flyer was designed by local graphic designer Harrisson for audioincident, a series of concerts programmed by Pieter Van Bogaert for Kaaitheater. Carsten Nicolai was supposed to perform at their 12th edition, but he unfortunately had to cancel. The flyers and posters had already been printed though, so Harrisson had the genius idea of adding a date to the series with a stamp. So on 28th March 2001, I had the pleasure of meeting the legendary DJ Sprinkles on a memorable night, mixing “fag jazz” with experimental techno.

Marc Jacobs, Prairie

This was a series of nights where electronic music, punk and rock’n’roll live bands and DJs would come together on the dancefloor. The first series of flyers was made by Aurélie Henquin, who was not yet a graphic designer at the time. This must’ve been her third flyer, made in 2006 when she was pregnant herself. What I particularly like about this design is its timelessness: she managed to add her personal flair while also capturing the spirit of that night. Plus, you never really know what to expect with this kind of visual.

What I remember about these nights was that anything was possible. Live bands created a tension that would build up and be released on to the dancefloor. The audience was quite openminded, allowing for eclectic programmes with occasional live painting sessions, 16mm projections and even improvised fashion shows. Although I don’t particularly feel nostalgic about that period, I do have the impression that people today tend to throw events within a specific niche, for a specific audience and with a specific message, leaving hardly any space for real surprises and eclecticism. Plus, looking at more recent visuals, I feel like we’re going in circles… I hope I’m wrong.

Bart Sibiel & Yoeri Bellemans, Onda Sonora

Café Capital used to be a cosy club in Antwerp’s Stadspark. Their Spark nights, organised by K’Bonus and Will O’Brien, had all the ingredients for a good night out: qualitative off-centre music, neat artwork and a friendly, inclusive vibe, which was quite unique in Belgium at the time. House and techno music were going through a cold and monotonous phase and parties would be monostylistic, so we found it hard to enjoy ourselves in nightclubs. Every week, Spark dared to mix genres, which felt like a breath of fresh air in the scene. We were invited to play there when we were making our first steps as DJs in Brussels and that’s something we still look back at with affection. This flyer from 2009 promotes several nights as opposed to just one—yet the one I remember best is Theo Parrish’s special long set on 11th July. This was before he became a big name, so the club wasn’t too crowded and the audience knew what they were in for. Years later, this night remains the most memorable party I’ve ever been to.

The flyer’s bare yet slightly cosmic look perfectly embodies these parties’ versatility and quirky vibe. It’s well balanced, delivers its message perfectly and catches the eye of its target audience, as opposed to today’s over-designed or amateurish visuals invading the underground scene. I miss promoters trying to communicate in a creative and remarkable way. Flyers from Pablo’s or Who’s Who’s Land come to mind—they truly sparked your curiosity by being so far out.

Raphaël Vandeputte, DJ Raphaël

Designing the Night: Graphic design of Belgian club culture 1970-2000 is on display at ADAM Brussels Design Museum from Friday 1st March to Sunday 29th September.