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Dark matters: The avant-garde and club culture since the 1960s

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The darkness of the nightclub is deployed to conceal bodies and acts that may not be acceptable in the sunlit street

Monstrous, bulbous, paint-smeared and globular, human and something more (or less), playful and unnerving: Leigh Bowery’s augmented body disturbed and captivated the British public in the late 1980s. For a moment he was everywhere, a multi-media work available in oil paints, gallery windows and TV shows, but his natural habitat was the club. Specifically, the club night Taboo, which he hosted in an establishment off London’s Leicester Square between 1985 and 1986, when he precipitated its closure by engineering a tabloid exposé.

This perverse and canny self-immolation by invited exposure is emblematic of Bowery’s practice. The darkness of the nightclub is usually deployed to conceal bodies and acts that may not be acceptable in the sunlit street – unconventional sexualities and genders, and illicit drug use above all. But Bowery chose this obscurity as the backdrop against which to display his obscenity to the world, like a diamond brooch pinned to a velvet board. 

The form his deviance took was occasionally crass, for instance in the case of the notorious performance in which he gave birth to a naked woman smeared in red paint and festooned with sausages, but this and other actions also prompted some deeper questions about the malleability of the human body, and its limits. Boy George has identified this as Bowery’s most significant contribution: his wilful inflations and dismemberments of the human form via extraordinary self-made costumes. ‘Flesh is my favourite fabric’, as the latter put it.

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Gruppo UFO’s Bamba Issa in Forte dei Marmi, Italy, 1969. Image courtesy of Carlo Bachi / Gruppo UFO

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Space Electronic, Florence, 1971, interior by Gruppo 9999. Image courtesy of Carlo Caldini / Gruppo 9999

Though clearly inspired by Picasso’s deconstructions of the human face, Bowery’s self-distortions also shared something with a less familiar moment of the 20th-century avant-garde, Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet. Schlemmer was the head of the theatre workshop at the Bauhaus, and it was his collaborations with avant-garde dancers that sparked the idea for a performance of unprecedented abstraction. The body was still the medium for contemporaneous pioneers of modern dance such as Isadora Duncan and Rudolf von Laban, however much they freed or battered it with disciplinary strictures. For Schlemmer, however, the shores of possibility were wider and wilder.

‘Whereas the mainstream of avant-garde theatre reformers sought to unite audience and performer via literal enlightenment of the auditorium, Oskar Schlemmer opted to achieve the same with obscurity’

Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet premiered in Stuttgart in 1922 with characters including Abstract (played by Schlemmer himself), Spiral, Gold Spheres and Disks. These wore costumes comprising elemental geometric forms and impossibly distorted limbs. In later performances, the entirety of the action took place against a deep black ground, before which the bizarre costumes disguised the black-clad bodies that wore them. This enabled a Nietzschean leap over the human to something else, albeit something that Nietzsche, with his intensely individualistic pathos, would never have dreamt of. Limbs multiplied and were replaced by objects, heads flew off, and bodies came apart and back together in strange combinations.

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Flash Back in Borgo San Dalmazzo, Italy, c1972, interior by Studio65. Image courtesy of Paolo Mussat Sartor / Studio65

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Palladium, New York, 1985, by Arata Isozaki with a mural by Keith Haring. Image courtesy of Timothy Hursley / Garvey | Simon Gallery

As Noam Elcott states in his recent book, Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media, it was the black background that facilitated this bodily abstraction. In addition to this, Elcott convincingly argues that, whereas the mainstream of avant-garde theatre reformers, such as Appia, Piscator and Brecht, sought to unite audience and performer via literal enlightenment of the auditorium, Schlemmer opted to achieve the same with obscurity. This flew in the face of the criticism heaped on the darkness of cinemas and theatres, which was felt to encourage both passivity and sexual impropriety. But for Schlemmer, as well as enabling the disembodiment of both viewer and viewed, artificial darkness also bridged the proscenial divide.  

‘Noam Elcott’s book as a whole is a convincing demonstration that “darkness has a history and a uniquely modern form”’

The deeper significance here, Elcott says, is that Schlemmer was reaching for something quite tantalising indeed, something that Walter Benjamin had hoped cinema would allow, and which cinema had signally failed to deliver. This was ‘innervation’: the playful interaction of the human with technology that allowed the former to accommodate itself to the latter without being subjugated thereby. This would, Benjamin hoped, create new and relatively unencumbered possibilities for the human in the machine age. In this regard, Elcott focuses on the enduring presence of bodies on Schlemmer’s stage, however image-like and mechanistic they may have appeared in the darkness. While this is certainly significant he blurs the fact that such experiments could take place more freely in the relatively autonomous theatre than in the cinema, which is after all a massive capitalist undertaking. As Brecht put it in a different context: ‘It is conceivable that other kinds of writers, dramatists or novelists, can for the moment work more cinematically than the film people’. 

Perhaps Elcott avoids such a conclusion because he is peering so determinedly – and productively – into the murk. His book as a whole is a convincing demonstration that ‘darkness has a history and a uniquely modern form’. He traces the genealogy of this artificial darkness, finding precedents in Wagner’s festival theatre and the black box used by Étienne-Jules Marey to shoot his famous chronophotographs. Similar techniques were monetised in popular entertainments by stage magicians and cinema pioneers such as Georges Méliès, and Elcott concludes that such decidedly low-brow entertainments were the midwives of Schlemmer’s ballet.

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Interior of The Haçienda, Manchester. Image courtesy of Ben Kelly

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Les Bains Douches nightclub, Paris, 1990, interior by Philippe Starck. Image courtesy of Foc Kan

It is in the figure of Bowery that the subject matter of Elcott’s book intersects with that of the catalogue for the current Vitra Design Museum exhibition Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960 – Today. The connection may seem obscure: what does a high-minded and original study of the tenebrous practices of the avant-garde have in common with a somewhat more familiar narrative of clubbing culture? The immediate answer is darkness, and what bodies do in it. On a formal level, Bowery’s peculiar costumes echo the bodily distortions produced by Schlemmer for the Triadic Ballet, and both employed artificial darkness to facilitate this – in Schlemmer’s case, that of the theatre, and in Bowery’s, the nightclub. Both instrumentalised darkness to reveal as much as conceal the body. Elcott notes one of the results: ‘In his pursuit of essential human and spatial qualities, Schlemmer jettisoned gender. The bodies he coveted were unsexed in the dark.’ He could be speaking of Bowery, or indeed any number of club kids that came before and after him.

‘On a formal level, Leigh Bowery’s peculiar costumes echo the bodily distortions produced by Oskar Schlemmer for the Triadic Ballet, and both employed artificial darkness to facilitate this’

In Night Fever, a gallery of these figures – gendered and otherwise – emerge from clouds of dry ice, as do their ephemeral stages. Many of these are well known: Paradise Garage, Studio 54, The Haçienda and Tresor all feature prominently, and a few of the narratives rehearsed here verge on the overfamiliar, at least to anyone with a passing acquaintance with club culture. However, attention is also paid to less well-worn dance floors: the clubbing scenes in Hong Kong and Shenzhen on the eve of the 1997 handover are explored in one essay, for instance, and the peri-apartheid nightlife of Johannesburg is the focus of another. Some of the contributions open particularly productive seams of enquiry, such as Pol Esteve’s investigation of a nightclub called Maddox near Barcelona, which existed towards the end of Franco’s dictatorship. 

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Tresor nightclub, Berlin, 1996. Image courtesy of Martin Eberle

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Isometric of Ministry of Sound II, London, 2015, by Rem Koolhaas/OMA. Image courtesy of OMA

Despite being an architect, Esteve focuses on the intangible technologies – the lighting, sound and drugs – that made the spatial exceptionalism of Maddox and clubs that followed possible, since ‘whoever controlled the technologies became the co-designer of the space’. Combined, Esteve claims, these effects ‘challenged the modern conception of “space” in the architectural realm’. Here, the author neglects some earlier deformations of modernist spatiality, which was never as monolithic as he suggests. Certainly, Miesian and Corbusian transparency may have dominated, but, as I have argued elsewhere, even Mies’s space is sometimes clotted, and there were other forms too, like Lissitzky’s ‘radically reversible’ axonometry (on which see Yves Alain Bois) and Loos’s domestic obscurantism (Beatriz Colomina).

Nevertheless, there is something peculiar about the distortions of club-space. For one thing, it constitutes an other to the supposed clarity of the street and the (equally supposed) privacy of the home, an obscurely public realm relatively hidden from the surveillance of the state. Despite the increasingly heavy-handed apparatus of security installed at the doors of London clubs, this invisibility endures, not least because the scene is beginning to withdraw once more to unofficial sites. (The number of illegal raves in London doubled between 2016 and 2017, according to police figures.) Whether watched over by the state or not, however, the essential qualities of lights and music deployed in artificial darkness remain. The owner of Maddox described one of these effects thus: ‘When flickering at a certain rhythm, [light] produces the effect of an old film by eliminating the continuity of movement. The result is the creation of a syncopated ambience’. This reference to the medium of film, particularly old film, and what it does to the body, is telling, because it reveals that the nightclub embodies what Elcott delineates in Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet: that Benjaminian struggle to find a space where audience and performer are merged, and human and machine can play together nicely, for once.

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Despacio Sound System, New Century Hall, Manchester International Festival, July 2013. Image courtesy of Rod Lewis

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Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, from Noam Elcott’s Artificial Darkness. Image courtesy of Chicago University Press

Elcott leaves the scene of Schlemmer’s ballet regretting that it had few heirs, but every Saturday night, in nearly every city in the world, bodies move in syncopated rhythm, playing with and against the flickering lights and electronic beats of the nightclub. Here the human pulls itself apart with the aid of technology, and puts itself together in unaccustomed configurations beneath the strobes. 

The political dimension of artificial darkness only emerges in the margins of Elcott’s book, but the authors of Night Fever are less reserved. Indeed, some make strident and somewhat startling claims for their subjects. Esteve asserts that the little Maddox nightclub, ‘was a catalyst for the redefinition of the political and social status of the individual in the 21st century’. We might pause before such a leap, especially since others in the book have cautioned that the nightclub is not always so transformational. Though the forces unleashed there have occasionally erupted into the street – one has only to think of Stonewall – more frequently the nightclub acts as a pressure valve, allowing the controlled release of youthful energies that might otherwise be applied to more dangerous levers. 

The post-industrial context of many of these clubs is relevant in this regard: as Peter Saville remarks of The Haçienda, young Mancunians were initially reluctant to spend their nights in the warehouse-like building, having spent all day working in similar structures. This subcultural congruence with the dominant culture – a brutally vulgar bit of Marxism – reminds us that even under conditions of play, the technological innervation offered by the nightclub can be more acculturating than liberating.

Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media

Noam Elcott

Chicago University Press, $45, ISBN 9780226328973

Night Fever: Designing Club Culture 1960 – Today

Mateo Kries, Jochen Eisenbrand and Catharine Rossi (eds)

Vitra Design Museum, £41.50, ISBN 9783945852231

Lead image: ‘Trojan’ (Guy Barnes), Nicola and Leigh Bowery at London club Taboo in 1985. Photograph courtesy of Dave Swindells

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy