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Issue 01

Courtesy of Gina Limon

Party Politics | The Last Days of Queer Club Culture

Simon Wu

Qipaos over jockstraps, Sailor Moon with a necktie, gym socks. The look is a little self-Orientalizing, but fun, like if Pearl River Mart made a clubwear line. Sookie Sterling, an artist and drag queen, dons a Chinese headdress. Later, on Instagram, the image is captioned “Gung Hei Fat Choy,” with five red emojis. There are other, less classifiable looks, too: a sexy-biker-turned-ballerina talks to an orange, bedazzled cowboy in silk shorts; zebra-striped tops with corsets and sprinkle-beards, small glasses and mesh.

A few hours earlier, I’d called my mom to ask if she had anything conspicuously Asian for me to wear. Now I’m in a small, sweaty booth in The Rosemont, a gay bar in Williamsburg, for Bubble_T, the roving queer Asian dance party. 

The crowd sways, a little drunk and a little high, but mostly inebriated on the fumes of recognition. For many, in a room full of people both Asian and gay, this party sutures together two parts of an identity that are otherwise kept apart. After the performances, the mood tilts; the air glitters and people start dancing to R&B and hip-hop remixes, stopping to pose for the photographer. Next to me, a designer and a makeup artist exchange information. They titter about collaborating soon, soon. A man wearing only a diaper, white body paint, and horns comes up to us. “This is E.T.,” my friend says by way of introduction. “He’s dressed as a ‘white devil.’” 

Such an evening seems unthinkable now. Nightlife has been suspended indefinitely, and we have no clear vision of the next time we’ll be in rooms of over ten people, the next time we’ll encounter strangers at close proximity. DJs and performers out of work, bars and clubs shuttered—it’s unclear how many will be able to survive. It’s possible that, when the countrywide shutdown is over and restrictions are lifted, the very nature of social gathering will have changed. But as I’ve fantasized about returning to the dancefloor, I’ve found myself reconsidering the political valence that has come to inflect queer nightlife—the politics of the kinds of parties my friends and I have, up until now, enjoyed.

In 2017, Bubble_T joined a wave of what we might call race-forward or identity-forward forms of party organizing. Named for the popular Taiwanese drink, it followed groups like Papi Juice, a collective formed in 2013 that hosts parties primarily for queer black and brown people. Bubble_T and Papi Juice have 11.6k and 27.5k Instagram followers, respectively. On a given weekend, pre-pandemic, there might have been any number of parties like these: On Friday, Hot ‘N Spicy, featuring East and South Asian DJs at the Bushwick astrology-themed bar MoodRing; on Saturday, GUSH, the queer femme party at the Ridgewood club H0L0; and later the same night, Onegaishimasu, the “Queer API dance party celebrating all QTPOC / melanin / marginalized bodies in a sex-positive space,” as well as GHE20 G0TH1K, Hot Rabbit, Homotown, Yalla, and so on.

While subcultures have long flourished in the New York nighttime, what feels distinct about these events is the language used to describe them. These are not only queer parties, but intersectional queer parties that freely use words like POC, trans, gender-nonconforming, and femme-identifying to describe their audiences. Papi Juice advertises itself as “an intentional space for queer people of color.” The online event description explains, “Any racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, and/or transphobic behavior will not be tolerated.” On Instagram, Bubble_T is described as a “safe, inclusive space carved out for queer and trans people of color” next to a tagline that reads, between emphatic rice bowl emojis, “WHERE ASIANZ RULE BUT EVERYONE’S WELCOME.” This framing has migrated even to permanent venues like the Ridgewood club Nowadays or Bushwick’s House of Yes, which self-avowedly seek to create “safer spaces,” giving all of their attendees mandatory debriefings on consent and harassment before they can enter. 

Some of this language comes from developments in feminist and social justice organizing. But the ethos of these parties—come as you are, heal through hedonism, lose yourself—was drawn from a long history of dance, disco, and rave cultures that historically created community around shared experiences of marginalization, even if they never advertised that aspect of their practice explicitly. Partying, especially by marginalized communities, has a fraught history of policing and regulation. As recently as 1971, it was illegal for two men to dance together in New York. The Cabaret Law—written in the 1920s to target Harlem jazz clubs—prohibited dancing by more than three people in any New York City “room, place or space” that sells food or drinks, unless that space had a rare and expensive cabaret license. It was used as a discriminatory tool and a weapon against marginalized communities’ ability to dance, to party, and to build community until it was repealed in 2017. Bubble_T, in foregrounding a marginalized, intersectional identity, reclaims the right to build collectivity through individual and social expression. 

There is value in that, to be sure. But my fear, attending parties like Bubble_T, has been that we are doubling down on our labels, monetizing them, branding them, in a way that distracts us from building connections across them. And this becomes increasingly muddled as we see the same language of inclusion and representation co-opted by so many products and services.

In October 2019, the musician Frank Ocean announced that his new album would focus on queer club culture and regional dance music, including “Detroit, Chicago, techno, house, French electronic,” and New Orleans bounce. To accompany the album’s release, he announced a series of parties called PreP+ after the life-saving (and controversial) pre-exposure HIV prevention drug. PreP+ was to inaugurate “an ongoing safe space made to bring people together and dance,” one that would serve as an “homage to what could have been of the 1980s’ NYC club scene if [PrEP]… had been invented in that era.” The event announcement arrived alongside a no-tolerance discrimination policy, with an all-caps warning in language reminiscent of Bubble_T and Papi Juice: “THIS IS A SAFE SPACE.” Despite the inclusive branding, tickets weren’t released to the general public—it was an exclusive event. 

The venue was Basement, a techno club that opened in June 2019. When I got there, I couldn’t help but feel that I was attending the funeral of queer parties. I mostly saw straight couples, hypebeasts, and Frank Ocean die-hards desperate to catch a glimpse of the artist. Parts of the party were fun—Arca hosted, Joey LaBeija DJ’d, the music was good, and spirits were high. But I found it difficult to call it a “queer” party, especially after having witnessed the more home-grown efforts of Bubble_T and Papi Juice. And I worried about how those efforts would survive, if their language and structures had become so visible that they could be wielded by celebrities, as an urban nightlife safari for straight voyeurs.

PreP+ embodied these queer parties’ worst tendencies. Because the no-cameras rule wasn’t really enforced, the glint of celebrity exacerbated a feeling of surveillance. All around, people were taking pictures and live-streaming. The mood was one of incredulity; everyone was just trying to document the fact that they were there. Michelle Kim, writing for the magazine them, recapped the most salient contradictions: “PrEP+ is what happens when a mainstream queer musician envisions a sex-positive, inclusive club night that ultimately becomes a ‘who’s who’ of celebrities, influencers, and industry players.” Furthermore, PreP+ was criticized for ignoring long-standing organizations like ACT UP and the centrality of the queer nightlife scene during the AIDS epidemic. 

What do we do when attempts at subversion mimic the structures they’re intended to subvert? What makes for a “good” party politics? 

 

Bubble_T was formed by a group of friends who weren’t comfortable in the city’s existing nightlife spaces. Makeup artist Stevie Huynh, artists Nicholas Andersen and Vivianne Yi, and designers Pedro Vidallon, Paul Tran, and Karlo Bueno Bello rented out The Rosemont so they could have a place to party without feeling harassed, fetishized, or overly conspicuous. “I don’t care if you’re going to a bar in the East Village or Bushwick or Hell’s Kitchen or Chelsea, you walk in and you just feel different,” says Huynh. “There is no Asian nightlife in the city—literally none.” Since that first event at The Rosemont, Bubble_T has held parties at the Williamsburg venue Baby’s All Right, the Bushwick art space Secret Project Robot, and even the rooftop bar at The Standard hotel. 

Bubble_T aimed to amplify the visibility of queer Asian friendship. The party was initially hosted by Instagram influencers—mostly queer Asian men and other downtown art denizens in the orbit of the Chinatown gallery 47 Canal. By February 2018, over 4,200 people replied “Interested” to the Facebook event for Bubble_T’s Lunar New Year celebration at MoMA PS1, which featured Japanese model Kiko Mizuhara and Opening Ceremony co-founder Humberto Leon. Solange came to a party at Secret Project Robot. Actor Bowen Yang and writer Alexander Chee co-hosted a Bubble_T this fall.

Using social media, and especially Instagram, these parties help grow queer communities by making gatherings visible and creating opportunities for people to connect outside of an explicitly romantic or sexual context. When Bubble_T’s Instagram feed isn’t filled with event pictures, it often broadcasts trips to Jacob Riis beach or impromptu Hawaii getaways with the core Bubble_T friend group. To see representations of queer POC having a good time, laughing, dancing, kissing one another, is in and of itself inspiring, if you’re someone who might otherwise feel alone. 

And, to state the obvious, the parties are a lot of fun. As Joshua Chambers-Letson writes in After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life, performance—broadly defined across nightlife, art, and activism—is a vital means by which the minoritarian subject “demands and produces freedom.” These parties emphasize joy and celebration, in response to a dominant media ecosystem that wants primarily to solicit stories of trauma from marginalized communities. The hope is that these effects can then migrate beyond the dance floor. 

But who can perform an identity here? These parties primarily catered to upwardly mobile urban professionals and creatives. They’ve taken place in neighborhoods like Bushwick, Ridgewood and Williamsburg, at the forefront of Brooklyn gentrification as event planners are driven deeper and deeper into the borough, in pursuit of affordable venues. Many of these parties have tacitly acknowledged this impact, offering discounted or free admission to queer people of color or community members. But the optics can still be uncomfortable, sitting uneasily with a rhetoric of inclusion and acceptance. 

The near-total Instagram coverage before, during, and after one of these parties, usually by a combination of professional photographers and attendees, also has an effect on the way people express themselves. If the club allows partygoers to test out who they want to be, then it matters that the presence of the all-seeing Instagram eye tends to encourage and reward modes of expression that are camera-happy, spectacle-driven, and social. 

The consequences of this hypervisibility are ambiguous. Despite more and better media representation than ever before, many queer communities are still deeply imperiled. The warmth of representation can feel like a distraction from the greater forces that keep our communities at risk. Is liking a post from a queer POC Instagram star your only work of solidarity for the day? Maybe. But is that enough? Instagram feeds on a trend-based logic, and so long as questions of inclusivity still rage in the public sphere, these debates will create currency, both cultural and economic, for the gay capitalism machine. On Instagram, the personal is political is profitable. 

Granted, neither Bubble_T nor Papi Juice operates in a vacuum; both are closely affiliated with more directly political and service-oriented organizations. Bubble_T’s parties have raised funds for Planned Parenthood and Apex for Youth and the Museum of Chinese in America. Groups like the Yellow Jackets Collective (YJC), self-described as an “intersectional collective of queer Yellow American femmes,” or By Us For Us (BUFU), a collective dedicated to Afro-Asian solidarity, frequently work across the realms of art, community service, and event organizing, hosting fundraisers and benefits for social issues. YJC once collaborated with the femme DJ collective Discwoman and BUFU to throw a “Queer Lunar New Year Party,” whose proceeds went to The Bronx Freedom Fund. Founded in 2019, Melting Point NYC held a “protest rave” in Foley Square to raise money for Al Otro Lado, a non-profit that provides defense and aid for Latino immigrants seeking asylum. 

Other parties seek to reflect their politics in their prices. GUSH, a party for “queer women of color to work and play, with a lesbian focus,” instituted a sliding ticket scale: $5 for femme/non-binary folks, $10 for gay cis men, and $75 for straight men. “The idea behind it is that it’s a reverse economic system from the world outside of GUSH. Men make more money than women, so GUSH is cheaper for women and non-binary folks,” says co-founder Angela Dimayuga.

 

Tensions around self-presentation, class, and access have defined American dance music culture from its very beginning. In the early 1980s, house music took its name from a three-story former factory in West Central Chicago called The Warehouse, where around two thousand mostly gay and mostly black men found refuge. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, clubs like The Warehouse provided spaces for gay men to socialize and find community. House was born of a double exclusion—not just black, but gay and black—and its refusal took the form of embracing and remixing disco, a music that the mainstream had by then rejected. In New York, clubs like Paradise Garage, which existed from 1977 to 1987, provided similar spaces of communion in a larger gay nightlife landscape that catered primarily to white men. Without the lexicon we have today, spaces like The Warehouse and Paradise Garage are organized implicitly by shared experiences of exclusion.

Concurrently, in 1980s Detroit, in a post-Fordist industrial landscape, a largely black population left in the inner city partied to techno in empty warehouses. Techno’s founding myth claims that the spareness of the deserted landscape manifested in rigid, minimal music made by and for the black working class. But the origin point for techno’s most influential innovators was actually Belleville, a small suburb 30 miles outside of Detroit where three black teenagers—Kevin Saundersoon, Juan Atkins, and Derrick May—began producing computer-generated music inspired both by the rigid mechanical beats of the German band Kraftwerk and the philosophies of African-American culture and science fiction that would later be called Afrofuturism. In Energy Flash: a Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, music writer Simon Reynolds recounts that the “Belleville Three,” as they came to be known, belonged to a new generation of Detroit-area black youth who grew up in affluent families that had benefited from the golden years of the automotive industry. Their fascination with European avant-garde music was in part a form of class aspirationalism, an attempt “to distance themselves from the kids that were coming up in the projects, in the ghetto,” according to Atkins. As the music gained traction and the warehouse parties got larger, some parties would put phrases like “no jits” on their posters (‘jit’ is short for ‘jitterbug,’ the Detroit slang term for ruffian or gangster).

I saw a lot of “Make Techno Black Again” hats earlier this year. It’s true that much of the history of this music has been erased by an association with European nightlife. But the music refuses a simple origin story. It wasn’t entirely a working class operation to begin with, nor was it only a European import. Reynolds suggests that Detroit techno owes many of its ideas to Kraftwerk, but Kraftwerk was itself influenced by the music of Detroit through bands like MC5, The Stooges, and The Velvet Underground. 

Accounts of the dispersion of techno are multifarious and difficult to capture in any linear history. The popular account suggests that when techno and house made contact with MDMA in the UK in the ’80s, the all-night marathon dance parties we now know as “raves” were spawned. Traveling by word of mouth, house music from the US found a soft landing in Jamaican immigrant communities in the UK, where raves began to crop up in gymnasiums, airplane hangars, grain silos, squats, and open fields. Gradually, this music made its way to middle-class teens, both black and white, who began to set up sound systems in illegal spaces. Skirmishes with the police soon followed. 

In the 2010 documentary Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1988-1992, artist Jeremy Deller suggests that this rave scene was a catalyst for social transformation. In an increasingly atomized country, raves were considered a direct response to the Thatcherite mantra, “There is no society, only a collection of individuals.” An emerging youth culture found community by listening to acid house, taking ecstasy, and dancing all day and night. Raves like this represented the first large-scale mobilization of people in the UK since the Miners’ Strike in 1984-85, and the correspondence between social gatherings like raves and political actions drew a great deal of attention and subsequent policing. The movement peaked in 1992 at a huge free party in Castlemorton Common, organized by anarchist collective Spiral Tribe. This week-long gathering of over 40,000 people in the Malvern Hills led to the passage of Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which notoriously banned parties of more than twenty people from playing “a succession of repetitive beats” in 1994. Evading the police became integral to the anti-establishment ethos of rave culture, as it migrated around the continent from Great Britain to Belgium, Germany and beyond. 

Malvern Hills, England, where the Castlemorton Common festival took place in May, 1992. The illegal rave filled the field with upwards of 20,000 people for a full week. (Bob Embleton, CC by SA 2.0)

 

Raves quickly took root back in the US, along with the new acronym PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect)—particularly in California, where the legacies of the 1960s counterculture persisted. The first recorded American raves were hosted by British expatriates in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the late 1980s. Most of these scenes came to be identified with middle-class white youth, with house music’s connection to the Chicago gay black scene largely forgotten. The whitening of rave culture went hand in hand with a moral panic about drug use at unlicensed dance parties. Throughout the ’90s, local governments tried to stamp out what concerned parents and alarmist newspapers called “drug supermarkets.” In 2001, Joe Biden advocated for “stiff criminal penalties for anyone who held a rave.” Biden’s crusade culminated in the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act or “RAVE Act,” which was signed into law in 2003, ostensibly with the goal of stopping the epidemic of drug use at EDM festivals. Its preamble recommended that, to find and arrest ravers, law enforcement officials look out for such dangerous items as glowsticks and pacifiers.

By the early 2000s, police crackdowns had largely corralled the rave scene into conventional nightclubs and the live event industry. In contrast with the abandoned buildings, remote farms, and desert wilderness where raves were held in the ’90s, promoters began to seek out ultra-mainstream venues like sports stadiums and motorsports courses. Soon, performers were pouring as much effort and money into LED panels and beat-synchronised animated graphics as they were into their music. Large, spectacularized events like Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Music Festival were finding popularity and profit in a Top 40 climate increasingly amenable to electronic sounds. The 2010s saw leather daddies sharing bumps with finance bros on the dance floor; dark, shiny clubs next to tall, shiny skyscrapers. 

The Electric Daisy Carnival, Las Vegas, 2011 (Roman Fuchs / CC BY-SA)

 

Into this mix came parties like Unter, a monthly queer techno party in Brooklyn that aims to revive the transgressive rave culture of the ’80s and ’90s. Founded in 2015 by New York nightlife organizer Seva Granik, it borrows from the aesthetic of the legendary Berlin club Berghain. It runs for 12+ hours at a time, playing hard and minimal techno, and enforcing a strict ban on cameras and phones. It eschews a Facebook or Instagram presence in favor of a private listserv, purposefully making information about the party opaque and only releasing the location a few hours in advance. Its posters emulate the esoteric classifieds and rave posters of the ’90s, which were often deliberately misleading to evade police detection. The address of one party, Untermania II, was only available via a hotline with a garbled prerecorded message. These precautions cultivate mystique but are actually still practical: Unter has taken place mostly in illegal venues, Superfund sites and warehouses in Ridgewood and outer Brooklyn.

In contrast with parties like Bubble_T and Papi Juice, Unter is not about showing off an identity or celebrating a cultural heritage. At its most effective, the dance floor is so enveloping that you feel like you’ve dissolved into the crowd, no barrier between your skin and your neighbor’s. Thick fog, pounding, lyricless techno, disorienting light displays, and freewheeling drug use help you forget you have a body, not to mention an identity. Most wear black, leather, mesh and fishnets, dark make-up, chains, thick boots, black sneakers, cross-shoulder bags. Many go topless. Despite its citation of the rave scenes of the ’80s and ’90s, which were often associated with transgressive or left-leaning movements, Unter doesn’t profess any explicit politics. “There’s nothing radical about Unter,” says Granik, “We’re just trying to have a party where people can feel like themselves, primarily queer people.” That said, Unter does circulate a “Collective Rave Ethics” PDF and occasionally a supplementary FAQ for parties that engage with BDSM. Segments from its emails profess inclusivity: “We seek to create and maintain a safe and diverse space where consent and respect are our first priorities,” it reads. “Harassment of any kind (unwanted contact, verbal or physical abuse, racism, homophobia, transphobia, body-shaming, misogyny, etc.) will NOT be tolerated and will lead to immediate discharge from the venue.” Unter keeps a strict door to enforce this environment, as well as a reparative policy that allows free entry to cash-strapped trans and queer people of color—a nod to the constituencies it hopes primarily to serve. 

There are structural differences in the way people party at Unter and Bubble_T. At Bubble_T, the lights are on. It’s about celebration, social dancing, chatting with friends, drag performances, community engagement, partnership. People are singing along to Madonna. They’re there to see and to be seen, by an immediate audience and a greater community, both physical and digital. At Unter, the overall mood is darker; people are melting into the crowd and into their minds. When I’m there, I don’t want to be seen, necessarily; I go to lose myself. 

For some thinkers and artists, this kind of ego-loss is a politically powerful tool. In a 2016 exhibition called Energy Flash—The Rave Moment at the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, curator Nav Haq presented raves as a “highly politicised phenomenon” that opened up “temporary autonomous zones” that “eluded formal structures of control.” For those who felt “failed by both the market and the state,” raves created their own logic based on collectivity rather than individualism that could “[transgress] race and class.” In January 2019, Jenny Schlenzka, director of Performance Space New York, argued in Frieze that contemporary art institutions should stop looking to museums or theatres as role models and, instead, learn from nightclubs’ ability to “break down the alienating barriers of class, capitalist temporality and individualism.” 

The rave can embody anti-capitalist protest in other ways as well. As Alex Billet asks in Jacobin, “What… is so much more offensive about kids throwing a rave in a shuttered Toys R Us than the fact that the bankrupt retail giant simply fired its workers and abandoned its facility to rot in the neighborhood?” Raving might reclaim spaces, and time. Consider the rave as technology detox, one of the few contemporary experiences left that are so all-enveloping you forget to check your phone. Taking place in the dead of night, it is definitionally in conflict with the schedules and pressures that define contemporary American life. 

But the reality feels a little more conflicted. Raving is the perfect cathartic activity to revitalize you before your busy work week. With ticket prices averaging around $30 a pop, it is often an activity for the privileged. What’s more, these parties can embrace the aesthetics of vintage rave culture without necessarily taking on its politics. If the rave culture of the ’80’s and ’90’s saw itself as partying against something—fascism, Thatcherism—it’s unclear what all the antagonism at parties like Unter is directed against today. And what are we to make of spaces that try to decenter identity in an age of identity politics? These kinds of parties could suggest a way of organizing that de-emphasizes our identity markers, pointing towards forms of collectivity beyond race—an ethos of come-as-you-are acceptance very much in line with the history of dance and rave cultures. Yet, in practice, the language of parties that are not explicitly organized around race, like Unter, can serve as a cover for an implicit whiteness, something the language of parties like Bubble_T has sought to combat. These parties might point to new collectivities, but they also might turn us into individual atoms, dancing alone to the beat, lost in a mindless, directionless crowd. 

As a form, raves are maximalist, and it’s not a far step from losing yourself to complete self-annihilation. The nihilistic strain is best exemplified by the “drop,” a structural feature of much recent popular electronic music. More than a musical motif or form, the drop embodies a particular logic: one of anticipation and release, with an emphasis on the release. The drop is usually preceded by a build-up, an acceleration of beats that reaches a crest and then falls into a dramatic musical shift. When the drop hits, there is a sense of zero gravity. With or without drugs, you feel you no longer have control of your body. It’s music for the end of the world. 

But now, in what can feel like the end of that world, there’s not much opportunity for dancing, let alone the performance or loss of an identity. A few weeks ago, I decided to try out a queer club night on Zoom. In a hundred webcam boxes, I watched floating heads. I watched bedazzled headdresses and red sparkly eyeliner, mesh tanks and deconstructed qipaos. I watched people voguing from the waist up and disco lights on bathroom tiles, chains and fishnets on bathrobes. I missed the bodies, missed the sweat, missed being in the uncomfortable orbit of strangers. 

Partying on Zoom in the Covid era

Partying, I think, performs a dual, somewhat self-contradictory social function: it can let you perform an identity, and it can let you forget you have one at all. In queer spaces, partying can reclaim the right to exist in certain ways, with certain bodies. Or the energy of a crowd, especially with the help of alcohol and drugs, can induce an out-of-body sensation, as you’re subsumed into a greater, dispersed collectivity. Both ways of partying have seemed, to me, rife with political pitfalls. Party or activism, rave or protest: the space between those terms is what energizes so much of queer club culture. The stakes of a potent and responsible party politics seem to lie in understanding these distinctions, and blurring them whenever possible—being both relentlessly pragmatic and hopelessly romantic. 

Do all of our parties need to have politics? Do our ways of thinking and being on the dance floor condition us for ways of thinking and being beyond it? And what’s lost when you can’t dance in a nightclub’s candied air, when there’s nothing to get dressed up for, and no crowd of bodies in which to disappear? Back on Zoom, I watched my own floating head bob to the music. I logged off, checked my email, and went to sleep.

Simon Wu is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

Copyright (c) The Drift 2020