At the moment, I’m near a building that in the 1980s used to be the home of an out-of-the-way club called The World, where, apparently, a lot of firsts happened, such as Björk performing in the United States. Of course, today everything is different here, but a few things are the same. For example, Björk has to watch for paparazzi and phone cameras now, but I’ve heard from many New Yorkers that until recently, she’d often go alone to out-of-the-way bars just to dance, hiding in plain sight.
When we read about the ’80s and its parties, there is always mention of an epidemic, the AIDS crisis, and how it set a tone, acting both as deterrent and impetus for going out. Partiers showed bravery, or maybe it was nihilism in the face of certain oblivion, the end of the world, for which this club I’m near was named. People liked to party like it was their last day on earth, like it was 1999, like their lives were in danger, since they were.
A good party requires a sense of urgency, heightened by secrecy, and during recent years, it’s been hard to keep anything a secret. Even if parties are illegal or exclusive, they are surveilled by their own guests. Guests whose lives are mostly online develop competitive natures, and soon every exciting event can’t not be broadcast to their followers. This structure leads to sponsorship, obviously (the opportunity for organic reach is irresistible to brands). And so, in the 2010s, the underground nightlife scene gained a moneyed polish. Bars were set with glowing, labeled glasses, and people stopped doing things they wouldn’t want to be photographed doing. Each era has its pros and cons. We had free, themed cocktails at least.
But in 2020, the shame associated with partying, in relation to the coronavirus, got rid of the sponsors, for better and worse. The party hosts are living on unemployment, without a lot of options, but then again, there is potential for that urgency and escapism we always hear about to return. I used to wonder, if underground parties go, or go completely corporate, what will future generations think of us?
There were always exceptions. The Spectrum, a queer club in Brooklyn, did everything it could to stay underground despite its popularity. It was always threatening to shut down because it wasn’t legal and needed extra funds to pay off violations, I assume. Located at first in a sweaty house in a residential neighborhood, with a bouncer standing on a small gated lawn, the Spectrum moved around, its name becoming synonymous with a crowd more than a space. In Wolfgang Tillmans’s images of the parties, they appear quiet, almost serene, as if the music wasn’t drowning out most conversation. When friends tell me about missing the Spectrum, they talk about a sense of intimacy that they have not been able to find anywhere else.
There was, we can appreciate now, a unique uncanniness to the phony layers of those sponsored parties, though. I remember working at a party in the now-closed Pacha New York, the massive space on West 46th—near Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club—infamous for its policy of not giving back change if one paid for drinks with cash. The party I worked was real, but it was also staged, as it was being filmed for a Nile Rodgers & Chic music video. We were, by default, extras. The strangeness of being watched while partying was inhibiting but also exhilarating. The multiple takes of a supermodel getting out of a cab in freezing weather didn’t even make it into the video, but we got to be there for it, watching from inside. That’s the tension we’re chasing at parties, after all—it amounts to otherwise impossible inversions of status, however momentary.
When a space is shut down, it becomes legend, the meeting spot for a cross section of a time period. I often think about Passion Lounge, a Bushwick club with a mirrored staircase leading up to a balcony, before it got renovated and renamed Republic, and later closed. For a short moment, it felt like everything emergent in New York was being performed there. Then, the dim sign with its silly backward S became this oppressive LED marquee, and I stopped hearing about anyone going.
Probably the most notable permanent (?) nightlife closure announced in 2020 was China Chalet, the Financial District Chinese restaurant by day and underground (upstairs) venue by night, which somehow somehow stayed under a radar despite years of celebrity attention. Now, China Chalet has been called our Studio 54, even though no one called it that a year ago. And it is that, if only because the idea of this location will stand in for a scene. In photographs of our pre-pandemic places, future students of image will study nightlife that tried to fight off exposure, before everyone went into hiding again.