Until the 10th of October, an exhibition named Party Out Of Bounds : Nightlife as Activism since 1980 will be on show at New York’s La Mama Gallery for Visual AIDS. While in New York last week I met with the two curators behind the impressive show; Emily Colucci and Osman Can Yerebakan to discuss this progressive idea for an exhibition. With work from a wide variety of important artists, photographers, film makers and thinkers, the exhibition explores how social activity works as a way of subverting mainstream thought and as a way to react and feel in context to the AIDS crisis.
So where did the idea of the exhibition come from?
Emily: Basically nightlife has always been inspiration for me, particularly in the 80s when artists like Ethel Eichelberger and Klaus Nomi were performing and I was really interested in how they subverted ideas of gender and sexuality. So I started a blog called Filthy Dreams that’s based on a bar that I’d always fantasized about opening with my friend and co-founder of the blog, Maddie. It was supposed to be this sleazy, confetti filled nightclub. We lowered our expectations and started a blog instead and we would talk about these performers who aren’t necessarily much represented in mainstream art criticism.
I met Osman in July 2013 at a Ron Athey’s automatic writing workshop and we started talking about our mutual love for David Wojnarowicz. Osman started writing for Filthy Dreams because he was looking for a place to write and was too lazy to start his own blog.
Osman: I wrote a paper on David and then I wrote my thesis on Pain and Performance Art, body politics and gender. I continued writing for Filthy Dreams and Emily and I became friends.
Emily: There’s an open call for curatorial ideas hosted by visual AIDS annually. They were looking for a proposal for a 2014 show but they liked two proposals equally so gave us the 2015 show which is a better because we had more time to prepare and our idea was really adventurous.
I love how the idea for an exhibition seems very specific but very relevant.
Osman: Nightlife has never been taken very seriously by the art world or academia in general.
Emily: It came up intuitively. We were thinking about what we could do and for me it just sort of sparked. After that spark that came out of our previous interests in the nightlife scene and a lot of the artists here, we started thinking of different artists that we could show.
Osman: Including artists that you wouldn’t necessarily think of when you think of Visual Aids like John Waters and Wu Tsang ?
How did you get involved with Visual Aids?
Emily: Through their open curatorial call. As a freelance writer I’d written about Visual AIDS shows before. They’re very supportive of artists who are living with HIV/AIDS.
Osman: Another reason is that when you think of AIDS activism you think of people protesting outside on the street in front of courtrooms, but we wanted to express that that’s not the only way. Those people go out at night to these places to exchange ideas and perform their actual self. Nightlife is a major area for performing true selves.
Emily: I remember going to several Visual AIDS panels and different panelists and audience members bringing up the importance of nightlife and that sparked an idea for us. I know that people who have lived through the heights of AIDS pandemic hadn’t talked about how important these spaces are.
That’s a real sense of community
Osman: Because there’s a reality outside and a reality inside these spaces.
Is this show predominantly about New York nightlife?
G Because of logistics it ended up so but we had some people Caldwell Linker who is based in Pittsburgh and they did the beaded portraits of people in Pittsburgh’s queer nightlife scene. We also have Chad States who was a Philadelphia based artist who did golden silk towel that’s a reference to the St Mark’s baths, Its called the Towel for the Gods. We have a couple of people from different places to show that this wasn’t just happening in New York as I don’t want it to seem that way.
Still, New York is a massive epicenter for subcultural importance
Emily: Of course, however we also have the White Cubicle Toilet gallery show in London’s George and Dragon.
How did that idea come about?
Osman: I think Nelson Santos, the director of Visual Aids met Paul Salmon who’s the person in charge of the gallery. They met at the New York Art Book Fair last year and they were talking about this. Then we met him online via Skype. It’s a one night exhibition on zero budget. Paul suggested we bring in John Walter who was doing his Alien Sex Club installation; it uses the architecture of sex clubs to show his art that relates to HIV AIDS, he can have a bar there too and safe sex materials and HIV testing. Obviously, it was completely in line with what we are doing.
Can you talk me through some of the works you chose? When you were thinking about the exhibition, which artists came to mind initially?
Osman: We both wanted David Wojnarowicz, John Sex and Keith Haring to be in the show. We wanted to make sure we brought in not only that older generation but we wanted to have a dialogue between different generations of artists.
Emily: Some of the younger artists include Jessica Whitbread who did the No Pants No Problem party and we have her banner in the show that says ‘Facilitating Make-outs Since 2004’. Kia Labeija has a work called ‘Death Mask’, she did a performance at La Mama in January where she was wearing different masks. She talked in the panel last night about how Vogueing and the Ballroom scene allowed her to create her Kia Labeija personality. With this death mask, it’s her taking this death mask off. The new one is rebirth, so the opposite.
What are some of your favourite pieces in the show?
Osman. I really like the Lovett/Codagnone pieces. They’re a NYC based artist duo. They did the magazine rack and podium. Their art is about being shot down and not being able to speak up, the functionality of speech. The magazine wrap is supposed to have magazines and posters, information, but it’s empty and the podium is blocked off so that one cannot speak.
Emily: When we met them they talked at length about gentrification, such as The George and the Dragon shutting down and so many of these important places closing. A lot of their pieces reference this, like their unlit neon signs; they’re there but they’re not lit.
The gay community is there but it is not being facilitated.
Emily: The remains of the community are there. I really love Conrad Ventur’s disco ball installation. It’s a perfect end of the show. He uses Amanda Lear’s ‘Follow Me’ from 1978. You go through the show it’s all through the pandemic and then there’s a queer, utopian space at the back.
And that’s what’s so wonderful about the experience of gay clubs, the ability to get completely lost in the disco.
Emily: Yes! And in a way 1978 was this ideal moment because it was before the AIDs crisis and I think that piece is very significant.
That Amanda Lear song is so euphoric. It’s so utopian you sort of lose yourself in it. That’s what the space of the gay bar should be and is. It’s the idea of going in and losing yourself. Everyone feels safe.
Emily: One of the main informative texts we used to inform the exhibition was Fiona Bucklin’s ‘Impossible Dance’. I just found randomly in a bookstore with a horrible cover.
Osman: It’s her dissertation paper for her NYU performance degree. It’s an amazing resource
Emily: She talks quite a bit of the idea of the gay bar as a queer world and a queer world made through dancing and losing yourself in the physicality of dancing. Her last chapter talks about the Aids crisis and the body positive T Dance, which was a dance for HIV positive men. One of the people that she spoke to says he dances for himself, for other people living with Aids and for those who are no more.
Osman: We’re not trying to be sad with this exhibition.
There is a real harsh reality happening for the gay community of the world at the moment. The nightlife is being attacked.
Osman: That piece by Conrad Bencher is a cheerful ending.
Emily: It hints at that emotional space that you’re in when you enter these clubs.
Can we talk a little bit more about how you went about choosing the works for the exhibition?
Osman: We had a preliminary list but that doesn’t reflect the final product. What really happened is that we’d talk to one person and they’d suggest another. We had the luxury of time to curate the show, we could really define everything. It gave us the luxury of not rushing anything. Most artists we met about three times.
Do you think a lot of these artists would consider themselves activists?
Emily: I think it’s half and half. Jessica Whitbread definitely does. The artists of the 80s didn’t consider themselves activists, they were just naturally reactionary.
Do you think John Waters would consider himself an activist?
Emily: An activist of trash!
Can you tell me about the piece of work he has in the show?
Emily: He’s made a giant ball of poppers that is spilling out onto the floor.
Osman: Much like our show! We met him once and didn’t get to talk to him a lot. I’m sure he has opinions about Aids activism or activism in general. He’s an anarchist.
Emily: He wouldn’t want to consider himself that or title himself in that way.
Osman: He’d make fun of it.
What work does Genesis Breyer P-orridge show?
Osman: It’s a collage.
When was it made?
Emily: In 1994. It’s been made in dedication to Derek Jarman. It was made when he was getting very ill.
Osman: It’s also London, not New York centric so it’s another aspect to the exhibition.
Derek Jarman is such an important figure to be involved in this exhibition. It’s a really lovely crossover. What about the Peter Hujar pieces?
Emily: Its one of his portraits of Ethel Eichelberger who was a performer in clubs and performance spaces of New York in the 70s and the 80s. Ethel was a one woman show with ambitious performances. She’s not just a drag queen, she’s an actress too.
Were there any artists who you wished to show but weren’t able to? Any dream pieces that you would’ve liked to put in?
Osman: There are so many people and pieces we could’ve put in and weren’t able to. There were so many artists who we glossed over or missed when we had to hone in for the final selection. Another larger museum could really take this idea and expand it.
Emily: Nan Goldin is one also. It would have been wonderful to have one of her portraits of Cookie Mueller.
Osman: We have a one month web gallery on Visual Aids which is an extension of the exhibition.
What do you want people to get from coming to the show? For me, it appealed because it seems to be a show about empathy and compassion.
Emily: You get a different feeling depending on your relationship to the era or subject matter. It’ll be different for each person.
Osman: I really wanted to show the idea of lineage. A lot of people think of these multiple generations as the generation that was living through the pandemic and then the younger generation now, and that they’re very different. I don’t think that’s true and the show shows that. It has a dialogue that includes both.
It’s very universal
Osman: With HIV/AIDS, there’s the stereotype that it’s over. With the nightlife too, people say it’s over and these aren’t true. HIV/AIDs is still happening and it’s still a problem.
Emily: When people think about the Aids body, it’s a middle aged, mostly white gay man. We’re trying to rebuke that.
I know in London the HIV rates are soaring and people aren’t talking about it.
Osman: Here too. The problem is the lack of dialogue and information about it. It’s a silenced thing. I wanted it to be accessible. Even if you know nothing of HIV history you could come to the show thinking ‘I like nightlife, disco balls, I can access this space’, instead of having something intellectual.
Emily: Galleries and exhibitions have that elite look that you cannot access. Here we have high, low culture.
Osman: And in that we can create a dialogue with people who wouldn’t normally access these type of spaces.
La MaMa Galleria, 47 Great Jones Street, NYC
Gallery Hours: Wednesday to Sunday 1-7PM