These Artists Are Proving That Parties and Club Nights Can Be Art
For artists, the creative impulse doesn’t turn off after leaving the studio. And for some, this overflow of energy manifests in the realm of nightlife, where innovative thinkers have found informal settings and alternative spaces where experimentation is welcome, and celebrated. While art exhibitions and social events have long gone hand-in-hand, many artists have taken this a step further, blurring the boundaries between the two. Below, we share a selection of parties and club nights thrown by visual artists and collectives in cities across the globe, spanning artists who consider these events a part of their practices to others who are just looking for a good bit of fun.
Rosie Hastings and Hannah Quinlan
In the summer of 2014, London-based artists Rosie Hastings and Hannah Quinlan initiated a series of reading groups called “Where is the Body” that looked at peer-written queer theory texts. Borne out of these discussions is @Gaybar, a recurring, nomadic, mutating installation that sees the duo build fully-functioning queer bar spaces from scratch, which double as platforms to show video art and host events. “The focus is on radical inclusivity,” the artists explain. “This is a departure from the typical gay bar, which caters specifically towards white gay men, or the art scene, which privileges white and middle class people.”
Hastings and Quinlan think of @Gaybar as a “sprawling queer laboratory,” where they can test and develop ideas relating to identity politics, but also to a wider swath of issues, like police brutality, gentrification, digital culture, and global warming, among others. Over the past nine months they’ve developed the UK Gay Bar Directory, which is on view this summer at Somerset House. Spurred on by an urge to document these rapidly disappearing venues, the work is a moving-image archive of over 180 spaces, filmed in 13 cities using a GoPro camera. They are also currently hosting a series of events titled “Fuck What They Think” at the Penarth Centre in south London, which features club nights, performances, readings, and a even a “twerkshop” for queer, trans, and intersex people of color, led by dancer and activist Fannie Sosa. “@Gaybar is a euphoric, critical, and liberating space,” Hastings and Quinlan explain. “We try to create an environment where our friends feel safe, sexy, and powerful. We channel the rage of a protest with the joy of a party. The effect is transformative and explosive.”
CHERYL: The Dance Party That Will Ruin Your Life
Nick Schiarizzi, Destiny Pierce, and Sarah Van Buren
Since 2008, the Brooklyn-based collective CHERYL have been throwing dance parties awash in glitter, fake blood, and dollar-store hair extensions. Preceding each event, they create a piece of whacked-out video art to promote the upcoming gig and provide costume inspiration for guests. The themes are delightfully bizarre, ranging from Giddyup Psycho to Weekend at Basquiat’s. Describing their nights as “large-scale participatory performances,” each fete sees the group choreographing dance routines, wrapping revelers in rolls of masking tape, or encouraging attendees to adorn themselves in props from a dress-up table—all set to a soundtrack of high-energy dance tunes. While CHERYL most often takes place in Brooklyn clubs like C’mon Everybody, Secret Project Robot, and The Bell House, the crew have also taken their act on tour to dancefloors around Europe, and staged installations and parties at museums including the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney, and MoMA PS1 in New York, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.
Members of CHERYL consider their parties to be works of art, and aim to inject some lighthearted fun and inclusivity into the oftentimes humorless fine art world. They also appreciate nightlife’s potential as a medium for more practical reasons. “In New York, where artist studios are so prohibitively expensive to rent, a nightclub gives you—for one night only—the sort of raw, open space you could normally rent long-term in another city, like Berlin or Detroit, for super cheap,” explains Nick Schiarizzi, who runs CHERYL with co-founders Destiny Pierce and Sarah Van Buren. “In the club, you get this super-concentrated, high-energy form of artmaking, and you can even earn a bit of money to put into your next artistic project.”
Jacob Sperber, Jason Kendig, Robert Yang, and Josh Cheon
Nightlife collective Honey Soundsystem was founded in 2006 with the mission of paying homage to underground queer nightlife’s storied past, while simultaneously putting a fresh spin on it for contemporary partiers. Its four members—Jacob Sperber, Jason Kendig, Robert Yang, and Josh Cheon—are known for their adept skills as DJs and producers with a penchant for disco, house, and techno, as well as for commissioning elaborate site-specific installations and artworks to accompany their raucous, lively events. Sperber, who comes from a fine art background, studied at the San Francisco Arts Institute. His interest in design developed from a desire to create a holistic clubbing experience that would stick out from the “tacky, gaudy, and obvious design happening in gay culture at the time,” Sperber explains. “We wanted to create campaigns that didn’t stop at the door of the club—the themes on the handbill extend to the walls and ceilings and music at the night.”
This objective has resulted in countless parties involving collaborations with visual artists plucked straight from their dancefloor, which is always packed with like-minded creatives. Most frequently (and notably), they’ve worked with CoreCult, a group of multimedia artists. Formed in part around the Honey boys’ commissions, CoreCult builds larger-than-life sculptures made entirely out of foam. Whimsical structures like palm trees, prisms, and Roman columns can hang from warehouse ceilings, and are also durable enough to withstand the at times harsh conditions of a dark nightclub.
When the group was asked to do a DJ residency at the renowned Smart Bar in Chicago in 2015, Sperber decided they should approach it like a fine-art residency. Dubbing the project Generators, they wove together a story over the course of six parties about the history of queer nightlife and gay liberation; they worked with writers, performers, and artists, tapped into local talent for help decorating the space, and turned each event into a podcast available online. “Parties, especially the good kind, take a little village to produce,” Sperber says. “When properly curated, they can have the sensory impact of a great film or multimedia installation.”
Glaswegian artist Jim Lambie is best known for creating site-specific, technicolored installations and sculptures that earned him a shortlist nomination for the Turner Prize in 2005; his work is housed in the permanent collections of major institutions around the world. In 2012, when he wanted to bring seminal New York punk musician Richard Hell to his home city to do a spoken word performance, Lambie realized that opening his own space would allow for greater control of the occasion. Transforming an abandoned railway arch from a muck-sodden wreck into a venue in a matter of weeks, The Poetry Club has since evolved into a free, open-to-all, mixed-use arts space with archival documentation at its core. It also hosts club nights, such as queer party Hot Mess, and the monthly multimedia happening Paraphernalia. “The interior has been developed and continues to develop its sum parts as a sculptural work,” Lambie explains. “The archiving and documentation of performances, events, audience presence, and participation are interlinked with the space as an artwork.”
The club can hold 120 people, which means parties there can get sweaty; Lambie likens it to the vibe of underground bars or clubs in cities like Berlin, New York, and Tokyo, with a friendly, diverse crowd. When the space opened he did a fair bit of DJing himself, but nowadays he plays less frequently, preferring to leave it to pros like JD Twitch of Optimo, Andrew Weatherall, and Hot Mess resident Simonotron. Lambie emphasizes that clubbing has always bled into the wider cultural landscape, thus informing and influencing artists’ practices —including his own—in varied ways. “Artists as far back as Josephine Baker through to Miles Davis, Warhol, Hockney, Burroughs, Thunders, Nico, Nureyev to Basquiat, Haring and beyond—the list is endless—all spent chunks of their social lives in clubs,” he details. “So yes, clubs are important and clubs can be art; if you want them to be.”
Every October, when art fair Frieze rolls around, London is overrun with artists and art-world players from all over the globe. Hotly tipped artists George Henry Longly, Prem Sahib, and Eddie Peake decided to capitalize on this in 2011, starting up their cheekily named club night Anal House Meltdown, knowing well that loads of international friends would already be in town to attend. The party usually happens at the charmingly dive-y basement club Vogue Fabrics, where the AHMD guys DJ everything from dancehall to techno to the masterworks of Beyoncé.
AHMD’s founders’ impressive credentials help to make it a popular affair, particularly among east London’s stylish gay crowd. Within the past year, Sahib mounted a solo show at the ICA London titled “Side On,” Peake was tapped for a Curve Commission at the Barbican called “The Forever Loop,” and Longly’s solo show “We All Love Your Life” is on view this summer at Red Bull Studios New York—where the group had its first-ever U.S. club night this week. While the main M.O. of their events is unbridled, sweaty dance party realness, they have developed artistic output from it too—they covered Vogue Fabrics in posters designed by friends, staged a performance titled “Darkroom,” created a magazine, and recorded a song called “Death Drive.” The trio doesn’t consider AHMD to be a work of art itself, rather producing their events for fun and a bit of release. “Something we feel is good is that our parties are actually separate to the art world,” Longly asserts. “I think the one thing that connects is that, in both, you control the pitch of an environment. DJing is more fun and immediate.”
When Stockholm-based artist Carl Palm was a child, his parents would throw extravagant theme parties in their family home. For one, they built a fully functioning tunnel labyrinth out of paper for guests to crawl through; for another, a mock airplane with seats for all. Memories of these events have influenced his interest in parties as a medium. “I enjoy the collective effort of making a party great,” he says. “From setup to execution to audience participation—simply one functional collaborative form.” Palm’s own elaborate, mixed-media sculptural works aim to call into question the notions of artistic production and curatorial practice; they are often presented free from explanatory text, letting viewers make their own associations. In 2011 he created a piece during the Istanbul Biennial containing, in his words, “typical bar paraphernalia,” including a disco ball, ashtray, and beer coaster. From there, the concept of nightclub-like spaces began to seep into his work in a more formal way.
In 2012, Palm founded the newsprint publication Good Times & Nocturnal News (GT&NN), which he now co-runs with Egle Kulbokaite. Drawing from the tradition of the artist’s book, GT&NN features contributions from a varied roster of writers and image-makers. A community soon built up around the magazine, which led its creators to organize exhibitions during the Venice Biennale in 2013 and 2015, with attendant secret nightly parties. The first, titled BAR GRROAWL, took place in an empty apartment lit only by moonlight, where visitors could sip grappa until 8 a.m. and fall asleep on sofa beds; it was an oasis of calm amongst the throngs of art world denizens flitting around the city. The second, called THUNDER DOOOOOOOOOOO ME, was a two-day rave in a sandcastle constructed from Styrofoam blocks deformed by heat, based on drawings by Swedish artist Arvid Wretman. The structure had sheets from previous issues of GT&NN tacked up on the walls, plus small sculptures embedded into its walls.
While Palm feels that there are advantages to putting on serial, recurring events, he prefers the raw energy of arranging one-off parties. “I have no wish to become an institution,” he reveals. “Changing my practice continuously is a direct reaction to institutionalization and a logical defense to being associated with a specific format or line of production—staying off beat with expectation.”
My Night of Unlimited Favour
Gaia Fugazza, Sisters from Another Mister,
Painter Gaia Fugazza and multimedia assemblagist Haroon Mirza share a studio in north London, where they’ve hosted many impromptu soirees for friends. However, when Fugazza had the desire to “curate” a party—she was “experiencing some art in galleries and museums and feeling that a party could be a better context for them”—she approached video and installation art duo Sisters from Another Mister. They proposed using their living space: a huge south London warehouse previously occupied by an evangelical church, where they were acting as live-in guardians (a.k.a. the perfect place to throw a one-off club night). The resultant event, My Night of Unlimited Favour, took place on February 26, 2016, and also served as a launch for Mirza’s new record 50 Locked Grooves, out on Poly Kicks. Fugazza and the Sisters designed the space, placing eight mixing decks in a circle in the middle of the room with lights affixed. When guests entered, they were welcomed with a shot of vodka and a banana chip, communion style. “The dress-code, ‘attract favour,’ was interpreted with slutty kimonos, single nipples coming out of baggy jumpers, pagan Annunciation dresses, and so on,” Fugazza describes. Poly Kicks label heads Tessela and Truss provided the music, playing their own brand of electronic sounds on modular synths and drum machines; Mirza also played handmade records constructed from geometric strips of tape in relief on various materials that produced sound by stimulating a turntable’s needle. The Sisters did a performance titled Sitting on a spa-bench can be a good place to chew, sit or spit, for which they carried a GIF around on a tablet in a transparent backpack.
Although My Night of Unlimited Favour happened in a temporary space that cannot be utilized again, Fugazza hopes to organize more events like it in the future, collaborating with other artists in different locations and possibly presenting some of her own work (which was recently showcased at London’s Zabludowicz Collection). She enjoys the quick feedback that can be achieved when situating art in a party environment. “I like the freedom of the guests to be as distracted as possible,” she explains, “the assumed responsibility of everybody’s involvement towards having fun, and the possibility of immediately judging the outcome of the event from peoples’ moods.”
The Bruce High Quality Foundation University
Founded in the early 2000s in the wake of 9/11, anonymous collective
BHQFU sometimes throws parties that are connected to aspects of their educational program. For example, in February they marked the mounting of a show called This is Ur Brain, consisting of works by the House of Ladosha crew, with a bash featuring DJ sets by
Justin Shoulder and Matthew Stegh
Sydney-based couple Justin Shoulder and Matthew Stegh have put on queer party Pink Bubble three times a year since 2007, as a platform for artists of all stripes to experiment with music, visuals, performance, and costume, with a dash of political awareness. Taking place at secret venues around the city, each event involves out-of-this-world décor and outfits, and is soundtracked by hard, subliminal techno played by local DJs. As Shoulder describes, the party relies on its attendees’ collective energy, offering up a totally immersive sensory experience through mass collaboration. “It’s not an experience you can consume—it’s about what you contribute,” he explains. The party’s name derives from a joke, the “pink bubble” being a protective membrane separating their community from the rest of society.
Shoulder, a performance artist who works in club, theater, film, and gallery contexts, and will be performing at the MCA Sydney this August, often does shows at Pink Bubble dressed in elaborate creature costumes that he builds. He refers to his partner in crime Stegh, a costume and fashion designer, as a “total craft queen.” The duo view their output as one interconnected whole, with blurred lines between work, art, and life. In addition to Pink Bubble, they put on an annual party called Monsta Gras on the same night as Mardi Gras, which they bill as an alternative event for the queer community. “I think parties provide a supportive, experimental, lucid platform to try new ideas out,” Shoulder posits, and adds, “I think they are healing.”