“One point of art is that it’s forming something we don’t have the language for yet,” observes Jake Yuzna, Director of Public Programs at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), in discussing the FUN Conference on Nightlife as Social Practice. An oft-overlooked form of performance and relational aesthetics dismissed as debaucherous decadence, MAD brought together scholars and personae for a weekend full of exploring uncharted territories in the arts.
Though the ’80s were certainly somewhat of a golden era for the conflagration of nightlife and performance art, citing everyone from Holly Hughes to Laurie Anderson and everywhere from Area to the Pyramid Club as examples, nightlife has bred artistic experiences for centuries. Cultural critic Fran Lebowitz has shrewdly stated, “Sitting in bars and smoking cigarettes — that’s the history of art.” From the poetry readings of the Dadaists to Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, art and socialization has been key in an evolution of participatory practice, allowing audience to view and interact with art in new and intimate ways.
Opening up the conference was keynote speaker Patricia Field, owner of the Bowery boutique specializing in downtown drag designs and Oscar-nominated costume designer. Shortly and sweetly, she mused that everyone has a “daylife” and a “nightlife”, and since one side of the coin will always be filled with work, the other side might as well make you want to dance.
It is this utopian, dream-like space that ultimately ties nightlife practice to larger cultural aims of contemporary art, as we can see by the escalating popularity of the likes of Yayoi Kusama and rANDOM International, who create interactive works that transport the audience into an alternate reality. Nightlife exists as a social practice, the construction of a specific psychic space facilitated by aesthetics such as club architecture, lighting and music, but ultimately created by a unique and often disparate group of people sharing similar experiences together.
“Nightlife has been at the forefront of the avant-garde and breaking down the barriers separating different cultural, class and racial groups,” detects Yuzna , a phenomenon he says contemporary art institutions would also have in their mission. Though however many artists are practicing within nightlife, such as the sexually aggressive Rose Wood or the glamour rock Lady Starlight, the genre still goes largely unnoticed in serious capacities, treated more like hedonistic spectacle by most of the public.
On a panel discussing the art of hosting, nightlife superstar Ladyfag, clad in a leather jacket and monkey fur skirt, observed that nightlife, unlike the art or fashion world, does not have the support system or recognition from sponsors to fund the discipline. “There’s no CFDA for nightlife,” she said, before waxing with the other panelists on the larger importance of nightlife. Not only does it provide entertainment for audiences, but it acts as a kind of community center for the disenfranchised. And that symbiotic, convivial experience expands outwards from attendees to further affect politics on a broader cultural spectrum.
“By assembling this pioneering conference on nightlife’s cultural power, Jake Yuzna and MAD are highlighting the wildly creative innovations produced by artists involved in nightlife,” says moderator Victor P. Corona, whose panel discussed the role of intention and dress codes in cultivating communities as well as establishing relationships in liminal spaces. On the panel was performance collective FCKNLZ, last year’s fellowship recipient, who also presented a video proceeding the keynote address parodying the episodes of trashy daytime TV from the ‘90s that featured club kids like Michael Alig and James St. James defending their existence.
For all the high moments, there were, typically, many lows in the conference. As hard as MoMA PS1 curator Jenny Schlenzka tried to moderate a panel on the shift from print culture to digital in nightlife promotion, it quickly dissolved to young club kids espousing the benefits of their own parties and recounting vapid stories more suited to a roof party than an academic discussion. It does open up the dissonance, though, of placing an ostensible vector of entertainment into a museum setting, a theme that recurred throughout the conference.
Is nightlife something suited to academic exploration? Or artistic analysis? Perhaps, while still recognizing its importance in culture and politics at large, we should not try to retrofit it into pre-established criteria of artistic practice.
The FUN Conference on Nightlife as Social Practice took place at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Midtown, Manhattan) on November 8–10.