Desire and Failure: The Club, Sexuality and Queer Utopias


Angus McGrath

Myself, in the club, Dispersed

Im feeling alone and dancing with my eyes shut, trying to integrate into the music, finding a seamless merge of myself and sound. Occasionally opening my eyes, I realise the club space is smaller, brighter and more defined than I expect. The most prominent things I notice are large pot plants on either side of the DJ booth and some static-y, VHS-like videos projected at the front of the room, floating above the heads of the dancers. I recently read Brian Droitcours ‘The Perils of Post-Internet Art’ article for Art in America and was struck by his description of the style: it ‘ordinarily purges its white cubes of people, preferring to use passively predictable plants as a representation of life. (Sad-looking ferns have become a Post-Internet stylistic trope)’[1]. The lack of embodied integration in digital arenas struck me at this point as clubs are the opposite – physical spaces where the body is used in ways that transcend its typical functions. People can dance to music whenever they want, but there is a point where (I find at least) the music, atmosphere and energy connect in a way that the contortions of muscle, moving the body back and forth aimlessly, are an almost unavoidable impulse. Sometimes this is promoted by substances, though it can simply be through a euphoric meeting of sound and physicality; chemical interference is just an easy way of tearing down constraints to the freedom of movement.

At the club I was in, I found it funny that these plants were present. They seemed to echo the digital space where they are a stand-in for life, which is the only reason I could imagine they would be a logical and aesthetically integrated part of this constructed dancefloor set. The plants and the video opened a communication with each other – that this was a digital space enacted – the Internet was being staged as a world that could be physically experienced. In his article, Droitcour talks about how writer and curator Gene McHugh sees the history of the Internet as something that ‘stopped being the domain of programmers and hackers and became an inseparable part of everyday life for people with no special interest in or knowledge about computers.’[2] In a world where the Internet has permeated all areas, this club struck me as a clear example of this – the fern is a real object, there because people cannot experience embodiment in the virtual spaces these plants have typically become a trope in. Their association with cyber-aesthetics means they are physically enacting a virtual aesthetic. At the height of this realisation a DJ I know appeared behind me and asked: ‘Is this real?’

The Internet in the present is (or can be) a key part of queer identity. In 1964 Marshall McLuhan foresaw ‘electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion’ and ‘heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree.’[3] Although McLuhan’s vision of a unity of social and political functions is not necessarily the case in today’s reality, there’s still an idea of freedom in the Internet. It is in many ways un-policed – at least in the capacity that many socially unacceptable behaviours are made potential here – both negative and positive. Any variety of identities can be clearly enacted and established across a range of platforms. Here, a person can be as public or private as they desire. In a specifically sexual context, the message, ‘Hey whats up’, followed by an image of a dick or an asshole is a normalised and almost canonic conversation starter on queer apps like Grindr. While crude, it’s an expected and accepted practice. Grindr itself is a platform where queer sexuality is presented directly via a series of categories on your profile: age, height, weight, ethnicity, sexual position, body-type, gender, pronouns, sexual health status, etc. Coded language is used. For example, the eye emoji means that someone is currently ‘looking’ for sex. A house emoji means they are able to ‘host’ – their home is available for sex.

At the time of writing, I felt that the freeing (though not specifically queer) aspects of the Internet and the desire to inhabit it were the driving imperatives of Myself, in the club, Dispersed. I now see the unacknowledged subtext was that my rising attendance at club events coincided with a break up and I was trying to find someone. This always resulted in failure, but I felt that I could, at least, lose myself in the music and the ‘set’ atmosphere. People were dressed up to go out, costumed for the stage. I’d forget my physicality and embody the space. In the club I could enter a fantasy world, a ‘utopia’, or at least attempt to do so. I went to these particular club nights knowing that they would play music I like, which is necessary for me to be comfortable enough to dance, but also because it was a place where people went who dressed like me, liked the same music as me, had the same interests. In many ways ‘desire’ is a key word here, present in wanting this ideal space realised, wanting to find love, wanting to fit in, wanting to have fun, wanting to be someone, wanting. In a queered online context this desire is obvious in something like Grindr, where a person is able to market themselves directly in romantic, sexual, or simply, non-heterosexual contexts. Similar codes are used in the stage-like setting of clubs where we dress up to indicate who we are.

 

 

For the tenth anniversary of Britney Spears’ 2007 album Blackout, Noisey asked some of their writers to elaborate on a specific song on the album. Alim Kheraj wrote about Get Naked (I Got a Plan), saying it was ‘an aural fantasy of how, as a young gay boy, I imagined every gay club to be: sweaty anonymous bodies grinding up on each other while people casually cop off in the corners.’[4] Kheraj’s account speaks to a sexually specific fantasy space that imagines the club as a hedonistic haven without rules, where non-normative sexualities are enacted. This taps into the ‘desire’ I’m talking about taken to an extreme. Kheraj fabricates the club as a sexually free space.

My mum was always a fan of disco and house music and I grew up with her stories of clubs, and particularly gay clubs, as fun and unfettered spaces. Even before I considered the club in terms related to sexuality, it’s space – mimicked only by primary school discos and the magical gay clubs my mother described (spaces I imagined I’d be more myself than I knew at that time) – held a fairy tale-like quality.[5] I’ve found, maybe in a recent state of exhaustion, that reality is much less exciting and dramatic than imagination. Much like the desire to make the club into the Internet, the same can be said of the dancefloor as a true, queer, utopia – in actuality, it isn’t. Personally, the tight crowds and unfamiliar bodies make me uncomfortable and anxious and I need to be in the rare mindset to throw myself totally and carelessly into the deep end.

With works titled Erotic Dance and Bunny (which is focused on bondage), Luke George’s practice might also seem to inhabit the fantastical conceptions of sexually active and subversive club utopias, but in reality, his works are much more about building a safe, queered community based on emotional, intimate, and genuine connections with people. George is a Melbourne-based choreographer and dancer and Runway asked if I would be interested in referring to his work for this article. It’s funny because I’m someone who writes a lot about club spaces and dance music in an art theoretical context but I’ve never looked at dance as a medium. The first thing I told George on the phone was about my art background and that I lacked any dance vocabulary. He told me that art theory and performance art is quite likely a better context to understand his work than traditionally understood ‘dance’.

 

Luke George and Daniel Kok, Bunny, 2016. Image: Bryony Jackson

On his website, George explicitly references Susan Sontag and her idea of an ‘erotics of art’[6], where we appreciate work at its base visual qualities. Does this lead to a kind of cruising of art? I told George I felt there was a cruising aspect to his work; there’s an electric period where the dancer/s and the audience engage each other in a series of sensory moments. What I’ve found so interesting about cruising is that it subverts the use of a space (in a queered way) and becomes manifest via coded body language, focusing closely on the senses. As much as it is a way to fulfil desire, it is also a process and translation of gesture and presentation. This evokes the sexual codes used on Grindr in an embodied form. In an interview with the musician Arca for The Guardian, Arca discusses cruising, describing the:

Beautiful conversations, beautiful interactions, beautiful silent moments, exchanging glances, at once kind of respectful and also insane. When you’re cruising, the look you give someone is almost like … it’s this heightened seriousness, it’s almost interchangeable: I want to fuck you or I’m going to kill you.[7]

Through physicality, the act of cruising grounds the search for sex on a level playing field, more humane in its codified communication than the bluntness of Grindr. George’s work is about this human aspect of connection – the community of cruising. It moves beyond the simple (though still valid) ‘sex-seeking’ aspect that queer apps can embody.

George’s recent work, Erotic Dance, features him in various states of dress, occasionally veiled, while swaying, crawling, contorting, shaking, all to a live soundtrack by Nick Roux. The stage is near empty, apart from a snare drum, an amp and Roux’s sound set up in front of some mirrors. The lights fluctuate between bright and dark. The performance is described on George’s website as ‘an experience of art that is sensual and visceral, intimate and mesmeric’ and ‘(p)laying with frequency, vibration, energy and breath.’[8] This, I feel, connects to cruising and especially a description like Arca’s above. However, for George, the work is closer to physical mindfulness and his conception of queer communities rather than queer spaces and sex. By meeting and working together with people over time, a more meaningful ‘society’ is built. And, as an ongoing task that requires work, the immediate and anonymous sense of fantasy and desire is removed and placed in this everyday reality.

 

Luke George and Daniel Kok, Bunny, 2016. Image: Hideto Maezawa

 

George said he wanted to speak to me specifically about Bunny, a recent performance which is known as his ‘bondage work’. It’s highly meditative and intimate, taking a form closer to a workshop than a dance performance. Throughout Bunny, George and collaborator Daniel Kok dance, participate consensually in a range of bondage practices with the audience and each other, and at points, Kok writhes around the floor passionately with inanimate objects. In our conversation, George drew particularly close attention to the performance’s ‘cute’ aesthetic, moving away from the rough, aggressive, and leather-y connotations of bondage. In Bunny, the room is light, the ropes colourful, and the costumes playful. More importantly though, he described the many different ways in which people have reacted. Although many found it calming, others found it incredibly confronting and upsetting. This negative reaction, which on occasion led to the performance being stopped entirely could be interpreted as failure but George described this as equally important as the show going ‘flawlessly’. Through failure, George and Kok had to actively work with the audience and, in doing so, built connections, moving the group closer to a community than a simple audience/performer dichotomy.

At one point in my life I believed all my issues would be solved if I became a ballet dancer.  I held this bizarre idea that their focus on posture and physicality made them otherworldly creatures – they’d built themselves into human utopias. When I got a chance to watch the Russian Ballet at a theatre I worked at I was crushed to learn that most of the dancers weren’t painfully beautiful. I knew nothing about ballet. They were all just ordinary people. Much like Kheraj’s conception of Get Naked or McLuhan’s excitement for unity via ‘electric speed’, my idealisation of the dancers was a fantasy. I thought the concert would be an opportunity to cruise my fantasy, staring at what I hoped to be while they danced on stage for me, even if it was just because I was a small fraction of the audience. But this dream of utopian beauty was built on desire rather than reality. George’s practice at no point casts himself or his dancers as these swans but instead revels in the realisation that the dancer is a person. Me in the audience is indecipherable from George on stage. The failure of utopia is simply the realisation of reality.

[1] Brian Droitcour, “The Perils of Post-Internet Art”, Art in America, October 30, 2014, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/the-perils-of-post-internet-art/

[2] Brian Droitcour, “The Perils of Post-Internet Art”, Art in America, October 30, 2014

[3] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (London: Sphere Books Limited, 1964), 5.

[4] Alij Kheraj, “Ten years on, ‘Blackout’ is Britney Spears’ greatest album to date”, Noisey, October 25, 2017, https://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/article/a37vz5/britney-spears-blackout-ten-year-anniversary

[5] Hilariously, my parents wrote an unpublished children’s book about going to the club.

[6] From Luke George’s website http://www.lukegeorge.net/eroticdance.html

[7] Alexis Petridis, “How cruising, graveyards and swan songs inspired Arca’s new album”, The Guardian, April 6, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/apr/06/arca-new-album-alejandro-ghersi-kanye-west-bjork

[8] From Luke George’s website http://www.lukegeorge.net/eroticdance.html

Angus McGrath is a Canberra-based curator, writer, performer and artist. His interests lie across sound, queerness, and subcultural studies, hoping to tie his various practices...


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