Great things happen in crises, so they say. But maybe something is getting irretrievably lost. Clubs are not only places to celebrate, but also valuable safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. What will become of them?
In London, the word on the street in late autumn last year was that almost two thirds of LGBTQ+ bars and clubs had closed since 2009. Figures are similar in New York, and in the so-called party capital Berlin the term “club mortality” has been coined. The full tragedy of this becomes apparent when we take a look at the history behind the emergence of the nightclub.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the USA the discotheques, which had always been special venues for nightlife anyway, were transforming into cradles of a new music, and at the same time they became safe spaces. Disco went underground, and with the influence of avantgarde and popular electronic music it developed into house and techno, hence the aesthetic radicalism of the new soundtrack for the resistance against heteronormativity and gender conventions. This was born with the help of artists such as Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Juan Atkins and many more. The sound was imported into mainland Europe via the legendary “Dorian Gray” club at Frankfurt Airport and ultimately landed in the empty bunkers and ruins of Berlin.
Clubs are said to be cultural institutions
If these resilient, subcultural spaces close one by one, their absence may not be immediately apparent. Now we have the pandemic, which has changed everything, but has perhaps also merely exposed the developments that were simmering under the surface. Rental rates in big cities have long been heading up and this makes it impossible to pay for the spaces that are so important to this area of culture. Rising rents make it difficult for the LGBTQ+ community’s Safe Spaces to exist; the corona crisis threatens to end the valuable shelters. Thus, the Red-Red-Green coalition governing the City of Berlin has now decided that clubs should henceforth be considered cultural institutions, so that they can make use of grants from the authorities, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis. After all, the explanation goes, there is uncertainty about whether or not clubs will be able to open again before 2021. Yet, this measure is not planned outside the capital so far. The Offenbach club Robert Johnson, for example, remains closed for the foreseeable future.
The Robert Johnson has found its own way to secure its survival without depending on grants and donations. Artists and designers have created “editions” and “multiples” that are being sold online. Pascal Mungioli, who is responsible for the program management, explains why this collaboration makes sense: “This is linked to Ata Macias’ idea to create a space where we can celebrate not only club nights but also design and art. We have strong links with the University of Art and Design in Offenbach, and the Städelschule in Frankfurt. People from both institutions have always worked with us, which is why we simply turned to our friends.”
“Club culture is defined by physicality”
While other clubs are seeking alternatives to normal operations and are generally ending up with livestreams, the Robert Johnson decided against going down that street. Mungioli comments that “when you start streaming, whether it’s a DJ set or an entire club night, then there’s a lot missing.” There’s more than that to the club experience. “It includes the people who work there, from the door to the bar, from the management to the program directors.” And: “When it comes to streaming, then it’s just about the DJ and the listeners. We want to reopen when people can once again enjoy club culture. Club culture is defined by physicality.”
That applies particularly in a special place such as the Robert Johnson. “There is no trade with passers-by,” explains Mungioli, because anyone wanting to get to the club on the banks of the Main has to be intent on doing so. “This actually already makes it a safe space,” he says, picking up on the concept of an aggression-free place where those who feel marginalized can take refuge. What’s more, for almost three years now the club has been hosting the party series “Fries Before Guys”. Mungioli: “I launched the series because I wanted to explicitly invite my friends and the queer community in Frankfurt. Since I am now responsible for the entire program, I sometimes consider whether we actually need it anymore, or whether one might at some point be able to design every evening so that everybody feels like they are explicitly addressed.”
I launched the series because I wanted to explicitly invite my friends and the queer community in Frankfurt.
A physical gathering in one place has become a hazard. At the beginning of June, US author Bryan Washington, writing in “The New Yorker”, asked the question of how a space free of threats might develop when every space can become a potential threat. By their very nature, clubs are enclosed spaces for proximity, safety, and indeed also for the unpredictable. “It’s worth wondering what the function of these spaces is, and whether they’ll survive, and what their survival will mean as the nature of physical space continues to change,” Washington writes.
“We believe that electronic music is defined by community,” says Daniela Seitz from the Creamcake collective, commenting on the nature of club culture. “So our origins lie within this movement.” Creamcake organizes a party series in Berlin, as well as the 3hd Festival, which takes place every year and is dedicated to discussion of the present and the future of electronic music, of art and the Internet. When asked how the scene has changed in recent years, Anja Weigl, co-founder of Creamcake, explains how there was a shift around 2010: “From the analog to the digital. At that point music no longer required any fixed genre language, and the online space remained very open.” It was at that time that electronic music also shifted in its aesthetic towards a “complicated sound that was no longer satisfied merely with hedonism and euphoria on the dancefloor.”
Hence, electronic music moved into art spaces too or was used by artists in their work, as in January of this year, for example, when the Trauma Bar und Kino, an art space with a club and mostly queer audience, showed “QT, UR, EA” by Mary Audrey Ramirez and Lukas Schmeck, a shimmering microcosm of soundscapes, generative videos and dance. The performance transitioned seamlessly into club nights and was characterized by the post-apocalyptic aesthetic of video games. What remains of it is the eerie feeling that its aesthetic somehow foreshadowed the pandemic that saw all venues closed just a few weeks later. For many of those present, it was the final evening in the Trauma Bar.
Electronic music moved into art spaces
It is perhaps in performances like this that we find the mutual allure of nightclub and art, and perhaps they offer an outlook for the future. The disciplines can be interwoven, and if art deals with the creation of fictional spaces then all the better. The question of what the future might be for these special places remains unanswered, but one thing is clear: It’s the end of the road for old concepts. “We don’t believe there is still one, true definition for it in 2020,” comments Madalina Stanescu from the management team of Trauma Bar und Kino, which is why she objects to Trauma Bar being referred to as a club. Rather, “we actually pursued our own needs and have created a space the way we want it. Art is a natural part of it.” Art can help to reinvent clubs, and the future will show whether it also helps maintain safe spaces.
We [...] created a space the way we want it. Art is a natural part of it.