I am no expert. My experience is limited at best and I have never been privy to these London parties and clubs that you speak about so fondly. I was also late to this party, sneaking in, in the darkness, during one of the films showing a distorted scene of an empty club, with an equally distorted soundtrack.
Fun City: Utopia on the Dancefloor – part of the ‘Utopian Voices’ series at Somerset House – was a mix of film screenings, performance and panel discussion, taking a timely look at the role of nightclubs as a site of freedom, celebration and empowerment, set against the issue of diminishing physical spaces where people can come together (particularly young creatives) to imagine and pursue alternative ways of living.
Clubbing as a political act? I’d never considered it before. I came late to the world of nightclubs; sure I went out in my late teens and early twenties – at the behest of a gang I was desperately failing to fit into – to local hangouts that blared out dance and cheesy pop music till all hours. I eventually found solace in the assortment of oddballs and misfits, lurking in the rock and metal scene. I liked the theatre of the whole thing, felt some affinity with the dressing-up nature of the Goth and rock outfits. The black lipstick, the heavy kohl eyes, the black leather boots the tight black jeans, cascades of luscious locks which danced and swirled wildly, whenever a song called for the emblematic head-banging. I was younger then: much younger than I am now. The division between ‘trendies’ and ‘moshers’ while still evident today, has lost some of its fire.
The animated film ‘The Cool Universe’ by Angel Rose is good fun and well put together. I particularly enjoyed the pseudo-science tone used to lend a sense of authenticity, to the subject of what it means to be ‘cool’. A performance given by Vogue Fabrics’ Lyall Hakaraia underlined the importance of being visible. He removes his oriental-style robe and dons a fuchsia gown, then applies make up – circles of bright pink to the cheeks and forehead. Having undergone something of a Damascene conversion myself recently, I understand the importance of being visible, as being true to yourself so that everyone else can see you for who you are.
Being visible in this instance I think is more about shining a light on the spaces, where people come out to play, in order to be a beacon for similarly minded souls to act upon and respond to. Is this about educating the masses; or standing up for something greater than you; a need for unity in a disparate digital world: fighting for a sense of autonomy in an increasingly controlled and controlling society? It could be all these things and more. My first concern when picking a place to gather, is one of personal safety, whether I will feel threatened, and also whether I’m likely to get turfed out the loo by some officious bouncer or not. That’s my first concern, not whether I am pursuing some existentialist ideal of utopianism.
Tonight’s panel consisted of the aforementioned Lyall Hakaraia, Charlotte Sykes part of queer techno DJ collective SIREN, Victoria Sin, a leading voice in London’s drag scene and Luis Manuel Garcia a lecturer in Ethnomusicology and Popular Music Studies from the University of Birmingham. The visual artist, and tonight’s Fun City event organiser Angel Rose led the panel, first asking each guest about their early club experiences.
Lyall talks of finding infinity with the night workers, discovering an artistic hippy community built-in. Charlotte said that she didn’t find anywhere that spoke to her, until she came to London and found a techno-scene with ‘phenomenal line-ups.’ Victoria suggests that while London is very different from where she grew up in Toronto, the once overwhelming and exciting scene, filled with more visible queer women, has now shifted, becoming a homo-normative minefield.
I had a number of questions ready for the panel the first being: If we create these spaces that are distinctly different from the places we live in day-to-day, actively building a state of utopian queer collectivity, and minority queer collectivity, do the effects live on after the last record fades? In my, as I said limited experience, I have certainly tried to bring the sense of freedom and acceptance I felt in VFD and RVT, back up north with me. The few all-to precious hours, spent in the company of all manner of people who identified in non-binary or gender fluid ways, the drag community, the queer artists and performers, have become like a window into understanding myself. These are people whose gender identity is part of who they are but doesn’t define them. Like when I say I’m Michelle before I am trans, I’m a writer before I am trans, I’m a fan of theatre etc.
I also wanted to know how the panel squared the circle of maintaining a utopia, but only letting certain people in: a thing I describe as the double-edged sword of the open door policy. It’s a problem faced by many well-meaning places, that initially set out to welcome everybody, we don’t care who you are, what you are, you are in, but these places eventually and inevitably develop a desirable type, and if you are not it, you are not in.
It’s the double-edged sword you can’t have a place that is queer friendly, then through your welcome all policy, have people in who don’t treat the community as equals. You want to attract a certain clientele, someone who fits in with you, someone who is already in some way like you. Is that utopianism?
Speaking particularly about VFD, club-promoter Lyall explained that due to gentrification resulting in higher housing and rent prices, the previous clientele had moved away, so he had had to attract a new audience, a younger audience.
‘Are there even enough luxury people to fill all the luxury flats?’ someone asks from the crowd. ‘Let’s open a club called ‘Luxury Flats,’ says another, seeing an opportunity to subvert the form.
That re-invention of the space, of changing the way it is used, continues apace, with plans to open up VFD during the day, as the club reaches out into the wider community.
The darker side of clubbing and partying, was explored later in the audience Q & A, when the question of how forgiving the scene is was raised and whether, there is a pressure to forever seek the utopian ideal. A great line was used that described this notion which I’ve included in my title for this blog. ‘reaching for an illusion of excess under the discoball’. The female drag artist Victoria Sin said that she tells new drag acts, who are just starting out, to make sure that they feel safe doing what they are doing, and that they are not leaving themselves at risk of emotional or physical harm.
It was suggested that perhaps it was escapism rather than utopianism that was being sought, by these more destructive individuals: those who used spaces not to imagine new ways of living, but to sink ever deeper into dark depressions, albeit with an audience of enablers. It was also suggested that if we see someone who is clearly suffering and needs help, it is our responsibility to go over and ask them if they are okay. Whether this Good Samaritan act will be appreciated or not is open to question.
In this place where you are never more than six feet away from surveillance, I was surprised to hear from Charlotte Sykes that in her ‘parties’ – a more intimate clubnight – cameras were forbidden. ‘At SIREN we have no photos, no documentation, so guests can be nude if they want and act in a more permissive way.’
With printed media, in the form of curating zines, featuring in both the work of Angel Rose and Charlotte Sykes, I was interested to hear that there is still a place for print in documenting nightclub culture. Club nights by their very nature can be ephemeral and transient. The activities and experiences that happen inside are, more often than not, lost in a haze of fragmented images and faded memories. This thinking about past events, is not to be confused with conservative nostalgic longing however, ‘Nostalgia has no edge’ insists my new companion Natalie. It would seem that the fast pace of life in the capital, has the effect of not allowing anything, other than looking forward, seeking out the new and asking, ‘What’s next?’
Towards the end of the discussion a number of the panel impressed upon the audience – by now baking in the Screening Room in the bowels of Somerset House – that they should seek out the sounds of a certain DJ Sprinkles, the deep house DJ personna of Terre Thaemlitz.
Is it possible to find Utopia on a dancefloor? The accepted wisdom seems to be that before finding your own utopia, you have to go through all manner of gay hell first, then and only then, will you find a scene that works for you. Later we retreated to The Retro Bar in George Court, mixed and mingled, exchanging ideas and stories: for a few hours maybe, we had created a brief utopia, at least until time was called.
The Fun City: Utopia on the Dancefloor Panel:
ANGEL ROSE is an artist who works with video, performance and printed media in the form of zines. Her video work has been screened internationally, at film festivals and exhibition spaces including Centre Pompidou, The ICA, The Simon Oldfield Gallery and The British Film Institute. In 2015, she obtained an MA in Performance and Visual Practice and launched the multi-media performance project “Serious Fun”.
LYALL HAKARAIA is the Creative Director behind the Queer arts space VFDalston. His past experience also includes directing PRIDE celebrations in New Zealand, producing and directing films in Hackney, designing clothes for celebs to include Madonna and Beyonce and creating interactive parties at the ICA, Barbican and Glastonbury. Lyall is always on the scent of the new and loves to work with those who are passionate and driven. His current collaboration is working with menswear designer Charles Jeffery and supporting and advising him with his young brand LOVERBOY. He believes strongly in love, art and magic.
VICTORIA SIN is a leading voice in London’s drag scene, using drag as a tool to challenge gender binaries, misogyny in the gay community, and what it means to perform femininity today. Her work has been featured in Vice, Dazed and Confused, Broadly, i-D Magazine, Timeout Magazine, Polyester Zine, Refinery 29, and has her performing regularly at venues all over London and returning to Sweden to perform three times this year. Victoria is also currently completing a postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Art, and has just launched Dream Babes, a long-term collaborative project with Auto Italia South East exploring speculative fiction as a productive medium for inter-sectional queer experience.
CHARLOTTE SYKES is part of SIREN, a collective who throw queer techno parties and curate zines critiquing the correct status quo in dance music. She has been running parties for three years and can be found behind the decks at most SIREN events.
LUIS-MANUEL GARCIA is a Lecturer in Ethnomusicology and Popular Music Studies at the University of Birmingham, with previous appointments at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development (Berlin) and the University of Groningen (Netherlands). His research focuses on urban electronic dance music scenes, with a particular focus on affect, intimacy, stranger-sociability, embodiment, sexuality, creative industries and musical migration. He is currently conducting a research project on ‘techno-tourism’ in Berlin while preparing a book manuscript, Together Somehow: Music, Affect, and Intimacy on the Dancefloor.