Inside 'Party Out Of Bounds,' an Art Exhibition Exploring Nightlife as a Form of Activism

A look back at the history of LBGTQ clubbing from disco to AIDS—through the lens of visual art.

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Jun 27 2016, 8:34am

Joseph Modica's 1984 photograph of Ethyl Eichelberger, Keith Haring, John Sex, and Cookie Mueller at Danceteria.
All photos courtesy of the author.

This weekend, THUMP honors Pride with a celebration of all aspects of LBGTQ nightlife in NYC and beyond. Today, Emily Colucci—an independent curator, arts writer, and co-founder of the art and culture blog Filthy Dreams—takes a look at artistic representations of nightlife as activism.Follow our Pride Weekend coverage here.

The horrific attack at Pulse in Orlando brought the significance of nightlife as a sanctuary for LGBTQ people into dire focus. Our collective trauma derives from the unspeakably tragic loss of life, but also the disruption of this communal space. In his televised response to the attacks, President Obama eloquently summed up what clubbing signifies to queer individuals. "The place where [Pulse victims] were attacked is more than a nightclub," he said. "It is a place of solidarity and empowerment, where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate their civil rights."

Nightlife has been a powerful political space in the queer community for decades. It's no mistake that the benchmark for the LGBTQ rights movement in America—New York's Stonewall riots in 1969—occurred at a bar. As a curator, I am particularly interested in how artists represent nightlife as a form of activism in their work, and have tackled this question in two exhibitions: last year's Party Out Of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980, which I co-curated with Osman Can Yerebakan, and the upcoming Night Fever.

Nayland Blake, "Still In Hock." Photo by Azmi Mert Erdem.

Exhibited from September 18 to October 10, 2015 at La MaMa Galleria in New York City, and sponsored by Visual AIDS, Party Out Of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980 looked at nightlife through the lens of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Beyond highlighting nightlife's boundary-breaking nature, the exhibition's title also references The B-52's song about party crashers—as a nod to how we aimed to "crash" academia's refusal to take nightlife seriously. Rather than delivering a conventional history, Osman and I wanted to portray an expansive view of activism beyond street protests. Through a diverse group of artists, as well as a selection of archival materials from clubs, we hoped to show that nightlife, by bringing together a community, can also enact change.

Developing the exhibition for nearly two years, we visited the studios and apartments of mostly New York-based artists and nightlife participants across generations. We listened to their hilarious, heartbreaking and powerful stories of love, loss, sex, performances, and fun within legendary spaces like Limelight, Danceteria, Tunnel, Pyramid Club, MEAT, and the Clit Club. Clubs like these were spaces for experimentation with gender and sexual identities, as well as community-building, education about safer-sex practices, and fundraising for HIV/AIDS activist organizations like ACT-UP and GMHC.

We also became conscious of the voices unable to be heard—those lost to complications with HIV/AIDS, and others who passed. Their tales often live not in history books, but in flyers, posters, photographs, and videos preserved in overstuffed boxes under beds, in closets, and sometimes, even in university libraries. Many of these remnants of parties past were displayed in our exhibition.

A flyer for an ACT-UP benefit at Meat from the archive of Aldo Hernandez.

The exhibition also included Nelson Sullivan's video footage of the heavily romanticized 1980s downtown New York club scene; flyers produced by Keith Haring for ACT-UP's 1989 fundraiser at the Sound Factory and the Chicago Voguers' Ball; Caldwell Linker's intricate beaded portraits of Pittsburgh's queer nightlife stars; Marc Lida's watercolor painting of well-known East Village nightclub The Saint; copies of drag queen Linda Simpson's zine My Comrade; a painting of Times Square's sleazier days by DJ and artist Scott Ewalt; and photographs by the HIV-positive ballroom star Kia Labeija. Knowing we had to represent drugs somehow in a show about nightlife, we also included John Waters' monumental sculpture of a spilled poppers bottle, referencing the early 1980s fear that amyl nitrates were a possible source of HIV transmission.

Party Out Of Bounds also made connections between different generations of artists. In a salon-style wall, we hung Pier Kids filmmaker Elegance Bratton's photographs from New York's current ball scene—a crucial avenue for health organizations to educate LGBTQ youth about safe-sex—with Luis Carle's photographs of the notorious Black Party in 2000, Peter Hujar's late-70s studio portraits of Pyramid Club drag staple Ethyl Eichelberger, and Joseph Modica's 1984 photograph of Eichelberger, Keith Haring, John Sex, and Cookie Mueller at Danceteria, who sadly all died from complications from AIDS by the mid-90s. By forging these links, we hoped to counter the romanticization of 80s and 90s nightlife in New York—and the assumption that the HIV/AIDS crisis ended with the introduction of the AIDS cocktail in 1995.

Party Out Of Bounds also honored the clubs themselves, many of which were shuttered by the Health Department during the height of paranoia over the pandemic in the 80s. Chad States' handsewn, golden silk towel tribute to the St. Marks Baths, and Wu Tsang and RJ Messineo's wall-mounted alter to the Los Angeles trans bar Silver Platter, which closed in 2010, acted as memorials to these departed venues.

Eric Rhein—"Ode to El Mirage."

Similarly, Eric Rhein's collage of jewelry and other hardware, Ode to El Mirage, is dedicated to the New York sex club of the same name, which ran from 1999 to 2005. Likening fetish accessories worn in the club to battle gear, Rhein, a long-time AIDS survivor, explains: "We were warriors, re-awaking to our sensuality and senses, soothing and healing one another. Having put down our armor, [our time at El Mirage] was a respite between battles in a time of war."

It was important for us to connect the exhibition to its original nightlife context, so in September 2015, we held a one-night satellite installation by artist John Walter at London's White Cubicle Toilet Gallery, located in the bathroom of the now-shuttered George & Dragon Pub (the gallery has since moved to the Queen Adelaide). Walter's installation, Courtship Disorder, created a carnivalesque atmosphere through candy-colored wallpaper and a video of Walter in an outlandish outfit reminiscent of club kids like Leigh Bowery. The night also featured a party DJed by Susannah Hewlett and Matt Carter.

That same month, we also held a No Pants No Problem party organized by Canadian artist and activist Jessica Whitbread, whose handmade banners emblazoned with political slogans like "HIV Is Not A Crime, AIDS Profiteering Is" was a central part of our exhibition. Whitbread has been throwing the sex-positive underwear dance party internationally since 2004, using it to fight stigmas around gender, sexuality, and other restrictive binaries while raising money for activist causes like Visual AIDS. That night featured performances from LaBeija and quirky Montreal vaudeville/burlesque troupe Glam Gam, as well as kissing competitions that people of all sexualities were encouraged to enter. In this non-judgemental, welcoming environment, even my parents had fun.

A No Pants No Problem party (Photo via JessicaWhitbread's website).

Although Party Out Of Bounds largely focused on post-1980 nightlife, we felt it was essential to give a nod to the 70s scene—a more idyllic era before the onslaught of HIV/AIDS. Artist Conrad Ventur projected the music video for disco diva Amanda Lear's "Follow Me" on a rotating discoball, fracturing and sending her image throughout the darkened back gallery. This dazzling, utopian club atmosphere mirrored Lear's disco classic, which can be read as an anthem to fluid and self-fashioned queer identities.

Using Ventur's installation as a link, I am in the process of organizing Night Fever, an exhibition exploring artistic representations of disco and its legacy that will open at Pittsburgh's Future Tenant in July 2017. The genre has often been maligned as too superficial and politically neutral. But this exhibition—held in Pittsburgh to question the centrality of New York in disco history—will resurrect icons such as Donna Summer, Sylvester and the Village People as symbols of queerness. As author Alice Echols' asserted in Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, "disco... broadened the contours of blackness, femininity and male homosexuality."

Night Fever may nostalgically look back to a distant and maybe more naïve past. But the exhibition shares Party Out of Bounds' goal of showing the unchanging and unwavering importance of nightlife for typically marginalized communities. As the attacks at Pulse reminded us, by joining diverse individual bodies into a collective force, even dancing can be an act of resistance.