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The Politics of Partying: Nightlife as Activism

visual aids

Sometimes the most powerful political action is simply self-expression. It seems like an apparent enough notion when you stop to think about it but in this age of the ubiquitous selfie, self-expression often feels like a narcissistic exercise in self-admiration.

New York in the late seventies and early eighties was quite different. To be seen in public playing with gender and freely conveying your sexuality was nothing short of radical and often had severe consequences. When the AIDS epidemic hit, political action turned militant and as scores of the downtown population died-off, nightlife played refuge to an embattled community and provided crucial cathartic release. It is precisely this convergence of sex, politics, death, grief and--at the same moment--celebration that is at the heart of this year’s annual Visual AIDS exhibition at La Mama Galleria, titled Party Out of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980 (through Oct. 10). Co-curator Emily Colucci beautifully eulogizes the era with this invocation:

“We dance for The Saint, The Anvil, Mineshaft, the Toilet, El Mirage, J’s and the Hellfire Club. We dance for MEAT, the Clit Club and Pork. We dance for club Chandelier, Squeezebox, the Mudd Club, Peppermint Lounge, Danceteria, AREA, the Roxy, the Tunnel, Limelight, Palladium and Paradise Garage. We dance for those spaces still operating that have been irrevocably altered by the ever-evolving city. And finally, we dance for those spaces that continue in the legacy of the formative, campy, radical, revolutionary vision of the bygone days and nights, sustaining nightlife’s legacy of activism.”

The show includes artworks and artifacts by such luminaries as Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar alongside — and in conversation with — contemporary work by Kia Labeija, John Waters, Wu Tsang, and Chloe Dzubilo among others.

I sat down with the co-curators Colucci and Osman Can Yerebakan to talk about Party Out of Bounds, the exhibition’s conception and the current state of New York City nightlife.

Emily

Photo with head of Emily Colucci by M. Sharkey

XXM: Can you tell me a little bit about the intersection of activism and nightlife as it pertains to the show?

Emily Colucci: These clubs were places for community very early on in the crisis. Before they even knew what to call AIDS, clubs threw benefits for the community members and performers who were getting sick. There were benefits for Hibiscus, who was part of The Cockettes, at Danceteria in 1981 or ‘82.

Osman Can Yerebakan: Keith Haring designed cards for benefits. It was a place to see that you were not the only one. A person living with AIDS or HIV could share their diagnosis with other people, their experience.

EC: A lot of clubs had ACT UP benefits. GMHC’s first benefit was in a club. This really was for community to come together. That narrative is sort of lost in what people think of AIDS activism. People think of ACT UP’s Stop the Church and these kind of very public moments. I think the show is looking at nightlife as a subset of activism that has not been looked into much.

When I think of nightlife I tend to think of performance, both by the patrons and also the paid performers. Something that comes to mind is Leigh Bowery. Can you talk about personal expression and how that relates to politics?

EC: I was just going to say, someone like Leigh Bowery or Ethyl Eichelberger or John Sex… even if what they were doing was not obviously political —they weren’t carrying around signs — I find these transformations into their personas to be political. It was a safe space for people. You can be whoever you want to be inside the space. Looking at Nelson Sullivan’s videos you see that it was a special place where people could try on different identities without fear. While this is not political in the sense of capital “P” Politics, I find that it is political. Put on these different expressions, play around with gender, sexual identity…

OY: The act of being who you are is a political way of saying “fuck you.”

EC: And that is part of our show. I see that as activism. And art as well.

OY: Even outside of AIDS, gay nightlife culture is what we do.

EC: That is why we specifically called the show “Nightlife As Activism” rather than just AIDS activism, because while that is part of it, there are other sorts of activism happening.

OY: Gender.

EC: Sexuality.

Osman Can Yerebakan

Photo with head of Osman Can Yerebakan by M. Sharkey

This is a powerful idea and I think it is also a very interesting way to frame performance moving into the future. I noticed going through the catalog that there are a number of historical artifacts, which act as touchstones for the contemporary artists in the show. Can you talk about the dialogue between these historical remnants and contemporary interpretations or reactions?

OY: We wanted to bring it to now because definitely there is a legacy that is still being referred to, artists like Kia LaBeija or Conrad Ventur are still holding onto a legacy.

EC: It was important to show these not just as artifacts. I think a lot of people approaching the show think it is just about the '80s but it was really important to bring it into the present, to show that activism – and specifically AIDS activism – is happening now too.

OY: It is an ongoing dialogue.

EC: The HIV/AIDS crisis is not over. It was important to put all these objects in communication with each other.

OY: This is the period to make that bridge between the past and the present.

What are some of the highlights?

OY: I really like Conrad’s piece. It is basically a YouTube performance projected onto a disco ball. It is a new piece, so we don’t know exactly what is coming. I also love Chloe Dzubilo’s drawings.

EC: It’s like choosing your favorite child! I am really excited about Hunter Reynolds. He is doing a new work based on photographs we found in the Visual AIDS archive which are documents of his first mummification he did at The Lure for a Visual AIDS benefit. He has a solo show that opened that uses some of these mummification photos from the present. To be able to see that historical legacy… I don’t think anyone has seen these photos before. So this is a really important moment in his career and his history, in Visual AIDS’s history, in activist history, and it really shows the merging of these things together.

As I was explaining earlier, I was lucky enough to see a mummification performance around the time these documents were created, in 1998. Because it was so long ago my mind is a bit fuzzy about who was doing the performance. I had always remembered it as Ron Athey, which it may well have been. For the audience reading this interview, can you talk about what this performance is?

EC: Hunter has done these mummification performances at The Lure and everywhere. Typically what happens is he stands while assistants cover him in plastic and tape and completely mummify him expect for one arm. He is completely mummified head to toe and then he is laid down, or he is taken somewhere. The tape they use is usually very glittery or some interesting mix of colors. Eventually, after the performance goes on for awhile, they cut him out of it and these mummification skins are also exhibited [in the P.P.O.W. show running concurrently]. It has many meanings: rebirth and there is also the fetish aspect, which you can’t ignore.

OY: We also have a London leg of the show. Artist John Walter is doing  a funny psychedelic video.

EC: And we can’t talk about highlights and not talk about John Waters! That is my favorite piece.

aldo_hernandez

Poster art by Aldo Hernandez

The giant Claes Oldenburg-esque bottle of…

EC: Poppers.

OY: It is a symbol for the whole thing actually.

Can you talk a little about the performance schedule?

OY: There will be an after-party called No Pants No Problem by Jessica Whitbread, who is also in the show. She does these parties around the world, basically as the name suggests: No pants…

EC: And no problem. It is basically an underwear dance party.

OY: It started as a metaphor for getting over prejudice, your worries. You are free. You mingle. You meet people.

EC: Jessica is an HIV-positive queer woman and an AIDS activist. She started doing these parties in part because she felt alienated from nightlife and didn’t know how to navigate the different clubs.

OY: It is usually a man’s world.

EC: So she started to do these parties to break down barriers around sexuality and gender. There are kissing competitions and party games to make people….

OY: Relax.

EC: And to be vulnerable.

OY: To think: I am not the only one.

EC: That will be right after the opening on September 18 at 10:30 p.m. On October 8 is Linda Simpson's Drag Explosion. I like to explain it as your drag mother showing her vacation photos. She projects slides of photos taken from backstage at the Pyramid from the 1990’s to now. It goes from backstage at the Pyramid club to performances to ACT UP protests. Everything we are talking about in the show in the frame of drag. And she narrates it.

OY: Kia LaBeija will be one of the performers. Fredrick Weston will be doing a collage around the bar at Leftfield on the Lower East Side.

When I think about contemporary nightlife, I am thinking about performance and also blowing-off steam, but it is hard to imagine physical spaces today that feel actively political. Where do you think interesting political expression is taking place today?

EC: That is the question. I think Jessica’s parties are that. I think the Drag Ball scene is still doing interesting stuff.

OY: But you don’t see it when you go out.

Why is that?

EC: I think because of Grindr and Tinder and all of the people online.

I think the landscape has changed because of the apps and, in the city at least, gentrification.

OY: Maybe it is happening online? They group-up and then they gather.

Party Out of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980September 18-October 10. Gallery Hours: Wed.-Sun. 1 to 7 p.m., or by appointment at La MaMa Galleria, at 47 Great Jones St.

Follow M. Sharkey on Instagram @msharkeyfoto

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