Art

Of Death and Disco Balls: Nightlife Art as Activism

Installation view of 'Party Out of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980' at La MaMa Galleria (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Party Out of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980’ at La MaMa Galleria (all photos by Azmi Mert Erdem, courtesy Emily Colucci)

An oversize facsimile of Rush poppers, tipped over, pouring out its viscous contents: this example of underground gay iconography blown up to almost belligerent proportions perfectly represents the aims of Party Out of Bounds: Nightlife as Activism Since 1980, a new exhibition at La MaMa’s La Galleria. The group show, curated by Emily Colucci and Osman Can Yerebakan, gathers together works by a small yet distinct menagerie of queer artists. (The poppers sculpture, for example, is by none other than John Waters.) The exhibition shows how nightlife offers a magic circle, a safe space in the shadows beneath the dazzling light of the disco balls — here provided by Conrad Ventur’s sculpture, “Untitled (Amanda Lear, ‘Follow Me’)” (2015).

As Edward Castranova pointed out in Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, the magic circle can “be considered a shield of sorts, protecting the fantasy world from the outside world.” It is an escape, a membrane surrounding the politics of oppression that bombard us in our daily lives. Wearing lipstick and heels, for men, was not only embraced, but encouraged in the clubs and bars where we were not pariahs, but patrons. And more-so, the crux of our identity — sexuality — could be expressed “openly” (or at least secretly-not-in-secret) in the magic circle of nightlife spaces.

Conrad Ventur, "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" (2008)
Conrad Ventur, “Untitled (Amanda Lear, ‘Follow Me’)” (2015) (click to enlarge)

Straight people rarely have to endure the secret encounters gays have, and maybe this speaks to the stereotype and culture of the promiscuous gay male. Even at the beginning of the 21st century, before the advent of Grindr and Scruff and Hornet, young gay men had a difficult time finding partners without the sting of prejudice and threatening politics. Though heterosexist culture may frown upon the hidden gay male blowing someone in the park, or through some glory hole in a bathroom, these situations were necessities of expressing our sexuality. The dominant culture’s scorn emerges from never having to be in the closet, despite the covert sexual habits (extramarital affairs, swinging, a constellation of kinks) many straight people maintain.

It’s simply because gay sexuality has always been in the closet in this culture that we as a population can still be looked down upon. Now, with our federally instituted right to marry, we don’t “need” that underground playground to express our sexuality, having been granted access to the only “acceptable” form of sexuality: monogamous heteronormativity. And that’s why this exhibition is important. The work in Party Out of Bounds exists inside a magic circle protected from those dominant norms of sexuality and family. The show is a disjointed gathering of pieces by queer artists who had little in common but survival. Scott Ewalt’s “Gaiety Male Burlesk” (1994) certainly reflects the devils that queers were once perceived to be, haunting the cityscape with our phallic symbols, the red, glowing skin liable to break out at a moment’s notice. But this image is embraced in nightlife.

Scott Ewalt, "Gaiety Male Burlesk" (1994)
Scott Ewalt, “Gaiety Male Burlesk” (1994)

“I hope that nightlife can be taken more seriously in both the art and activism worlds,” Emily Colucci, the show’s co-curator (and a Hyperallergic contributor), told me. “In the art world, I think many of the artists or performers who made or continue to make art in clubs or bars often get overlooked as frivolous, which clearly isn’t true. Some of the most acclaimed artists, such as David Wojnarowicz, took inspiration from and even worked in clubs.”

Despite the urgency of establishing this genre as an engine of change and the clangor of its subject matter, the show is relatively quiet. I’m reminded of a 2012 exhibition at NYU’s 80WSE gallery of work by Gran Fury that was much, much louder — or maybe just more obvious. Blown-up prints filled entire gallery walls, flyers littered the floor; it was in-your-face, no-apologies-desired, slap-in-the-face activism with an artistic bent. Party Out of Bounds is the opposite: quiet works of sublime art that pack a wallop.

Nevertheless, there is a loudness to even the subtlest works on display here. Lovett/Codagnone’s mirrored, pink and silver sculpture “Death Disko: Fanzine Rack” (2015) is empty, but its reflective surface bats an image of complacency back at the viewer in the face of annihilation, implicating visitors in the deaths of gay men.

John Waters, "Rush" (2009)
John Waters, “Rush” (2009)

Robert Getso’s “NYC Go-Go” (2014) depicts a fantasy of queer dominance over a heterosexist society. The art deco Empire State Building reigns as a beacon of commerce over the insignificant specs of humanity dying of a plague, but in Getso’s work it is subverted by the very thing this society fears: a lean, taut boy in his underwear leaning against the building as if it were nothing but a graffiti-stained wall, inconsequential but for the fact that it gives him respite while he looks for his next man.

As David M. Halperin wrote in How to be Gay, “in order to find sexual partners, you had to attach yourself to one of the institutions of gay male social life [bars] […] you were bound to meet people you would never have encountered in your own social circles […] if it had been up to you. But it wasn’t up to you. You had to take the crowds that congregated in gay venues as you found them.” This specific nexus of people (whose only commonality was sexuality) formed a unique community, one that only through happenstance found political connections, artistic expression, and a kind of familial unity borne out of necessity rather than state-guaranteed security.

This small show is reflective of larger trends. Disparate works are joined together in a sweaty box, works with many different colors, styles, and messages. And yet, somehow, they all speak to the same ultimate motive and message: we deserve to live, and we deserve to live the way we are. No exceptions.

Chad States, "A Towel for the Gods" (2013)
Chad States, “A Towel for the Gods” (2013)

Party Out of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980 continues at La Galleria (47 Great Jones Street, East Village, Manhattan) through October 10.

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