New York was once a refuge for queers, artists, and outcasts who lived and all too frequently died in Manhattan. As the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, thousands of the city’s residents died of related illnesses and now the number of AIDS-related deaths in New York has passed 100,000. But New York had a vibrant underground nightlife scene during the height of the epidemic, a scene which is still remembered fondly today. A new exhibition, Party Out of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980, tries to reconcile those two seemingly incompatible sides to the city’s history. Named for a song by the B-52s, the exhibition attempts to show that activism doesn’t only happen in street protests. It can also happen in the nightclubs, the bathhouses, and other social spaces where queers gather to have fun.
Party Out of Bounds features club flyers, photographs and ephemera from the early years of the AIDS crisis, including work by influential artists Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz, as well as club fixtures like drag queen Linda Simpson. Curators Emily Colucci and Osman Can Yerebakan are too young to have experienced this era firsthand, but they’ve worked with non-profit archive Visual AIDS for nearly two years to assemble this show.
Some of the most interesting pieces include flyers and ephemera from MEAT and The Clit Club, sex-positive gay and lesbian nights that sprung up simultaneously in the city’s Meatpacking District in 1990. These clubs served as spaces for communication and escapism, but they also served political functions, regularly holding benefits for groups like ACT UP and the Women’s Health Activism Committee.
Almost any New Yorker can tell you that the city is different today than it was in 1990, and everyone agrees it’s the cost of living. “Rents have a lot to do with it,” says Colucci:
“Twenty five years ago, rent was so low that you could pay a hundred dollars for your apartment and focus more on what you were doing at the Pyramid Club that night. But gentrification has really changed the dialogue. People are building these giant condos that no one lives in, they’re just pied a terres that never get used.”
She refers to Sarah Schulman’s 2012 The Gentrification of the Mind, a memoir of how radical queer New York vanished almost overnight. Colucci points to New York’s drag ball scene as an example that things still are alive and well, but points out that activist queer parties are more likely to be one-off events than regular weekly happenings.
“There’s always a nostalgia for twenty or thirty years ago,” explains curator Emily Colucci. “Part of it is yearning for a different New York. It’s easy to ignore how awful New York was back then. There was crime and there was drugs and people were always getting mugged.”
While a majority of the Party Out Of Bounds exhibit is actually given to work from the twenty-first century, many of the pieces are nostalgic, from John Waters’ enormous overturned bottle of amyl nitrate to Chad States’s homage to the New St. Marks Baths, a cruising ground closed by the New York Health Department in 1985.
Several pieces deal with more recent spaces. Eric Rhein’s Ode To El Mirage, an assemblage of found objects, pays tribute to a space that became very important for the artist after his return to health after nearly dying from AIDS-related illnesses. (El Mirage was shut down by New York health official in 2006.) Jessica Whitbread’s banner comes from the Toronto-based artist’s ongoing underwear party, No Pants No Problem, whose mission is to create convivial spaces for everyone to feel comfortable in their bodies, regardless of gender or HIV status.
“I think a lot of people were expecting the show to just include older work,” says Colucci. “But we wanted to get across that this isn’t an issue that ended in the nineties.”
Party Out of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980 runs through October 10th at La MaMa Galleria (47 Great Jones Street).