Starry Nightlife at MAD Museum

As the MAD panel participants discussed, the fragmentation of the nightlife scene into distinct spheres has not prevented the weekly parties from enduring as spaces where uninhibited expressions of marginal identities may still be celebrated.

poster for

"David Bowie, Artist" Exhibition

at Museum of Arts & Design
in the Midtown area
This event has ended - (2011-05-09 - 2011-07-16)

In Features by Victor P. Corona 2011-06-07 print

When visiting a New York museum on a sunny afternoon one can expect certain things: crowds huddled around iconic pieces of the collection, cellphones snapping and tweeting photos, overhearing at least a handful of languages, and museum regulars gabbing about the newest exhibition. Less common is a lecture hall filled with twenty-somethings wearing fishnet shirts, kilts, and combat boots, an expected call-in from a state prison, and mohawks and turquoise hair sticking out among the sea of heads. This was, nonetheless, the rather animated assembly at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) that gathered together for a roundtable discussion on New York nightlife. Featuring reigning nightlife queen Susanne Bartsch and journalist Michael Musto, among others, the event also celebrated the creation of the Museum’s Fun Fellowship in the Social Practice of Nightlife, which funds artists and artist collectives involved in nightlife events. MAD was also preparing for the launch of its new David Bowie, Artist retrospective, focused on the glam-rock star who would have likely enjoyed the theatricality of the lecture attendants’ looks.

Cancelled at the last moment, the prison phone call was supposed to be from the club kid “king” himself, Michael Alig, who is serving a sentence for the 1996 killing of a friend. Alig, of course, was greatly inspired by the Superstars that orbited around Andy Warhol’s Factory, where struggling artists and performers cavorted with disaffected socialites and writers. Tracing the lineage of this nightlife nexus from the Warhol Superstars to the club kids to MAD’s new Fun Fellowship initiative offers fresh opportunities to understand gatherings that nurture informal collisions among members of New York’s art world. In particular, the MAD effort raises questions about the extent to which nightlife is an artistic practice in its own right and its role as a social space for exchange among cultural producers from different social networks.

Of course, contemporary art and nightlife communities possess resources that Alig’s party-goers or Warhol’s Factory companions could only imagine. Today’s creative classes are able to deploy social media tools to organize, publicize, record, and avidly discuss their weekly parties. What is preserved across these historical periods, however, is an intense desire to have their “looks” documented and transmitted and to band together in like-minded groupings. As the MAD panel participants discussed, the fragmentation of the nightlife scene into distinct spheres has not prevented the weekly parties from enduring as spaces where uninhibited expressions of marginal identities may still be celebrated. So just as observers and critics may roam gallery districts to seek out stirrings of new creative energy, visits to a few of the popular weekly gatherings of both party veterans and rising stars can shed light on MAD’s perception of nightlife as a driver of cultural innovation in New York.

At St. Jerome’s on the Lower East Side, for example, the work week is inaugurated with carousing instead of grumbling. Magic Mondays at the Rivington Street bar consist of a vigorous revelry generated by the songs of Breedlove, a friendly singer usually seen sporting garments typical of the ’80s and ’90s. At a recent Magic Monday, a fog machine started its work and the small bar quickly filled. The crowd of bar regulars enthusiastically sang along to cheery, rousing songs like “Oh, Pierre!” “OK By Me,” and “New York City Rooftop,” which Breedlove sang with a robust voice as he walked among partiers, beer in hand. Richie Rich, an original club kid compatriot of Alig and a founder of the Heatherette fashion label, arrived alongside Jocelyn Saldana, who daringly posed in a subway sans any garments for Zach Hyman’s Decent Exposures series. Remaining devoted to the creation of his magic musical moments, Breedlove has amassed a fan following that includes veteran practitioners of the art of New York nightlife and recent college grads eager to plunge into the various strains of local culture.

Jocelyn Saldana and Breedlove at Ladyland, Hudson Hotel. Photograph: Ash Fox and Kelle Calco.
Photo Credit: Ash Fox and Kelle Calco on Facebook

Immersed in the uptown Columbus Circle chic of the Hudson Hotel’s Library, Thursday night’s Ladyland is described on the party’s Facebook page as “a motley cast of muppets, models, and musicians” by organizer Kelle Calco. In a setting that meshes bookish décor with a violet billiards table, Ladyland’s dazzling duo of hosts, Darian Darling and Tommy Hottpants, cultivate a rock and roll atmosphere that attracts fashion industry toilers, neon-haired club kids, and suit-and-tie types. Noting the inspiration for the party’s name in a Jimi Hendrix song, a recent write-up in On Makeup Magazine reported, “The feel is reminiscent of The Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter or a sexy Warhol Factory party—complete with the characters and creativity that originally made New York City the creative capital of the world.” Recent visitors at Ladyland have included Brian Newman, the debonair trumpet player at the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room and lower Manhattan’s Duane Park, and rock icon Debbie Harry, who has collaborated in the past with Ladyland’s DJ, Miss Guy.

Darian Darling (with glass) at Ladyland, Hudson Hotel. Photograph: Ash Fox and Kelle Calco.

Down at the Standard, the André Balazs boutique hotel straddling the Meatpacking District’s High Line, the creative effervescence of nightlife enshrined by the MAD Fun Fellowship gives way to the capricious tyranny of the velvet rope. Impressive rooftop views of New York welcome those who successfully gain access to the On Top party hosted by Susanne Bartsch herself. While a large jacuzzi embedded in the dance floor gradually filled with revelers, Bartsch twirled atop a table, far more in her element there than she was sitting behind a long desk at the MAD lecture hall. Other art world stars convened at On Top’s debut night in May, including Kenny Scharf and David LaChapelle, whose careers were influenced early on by Warhol’s Pop aesthetic. Darian Darling also co-hosts this party and arrived clad in the veiled graveside glamour of what she described as a “Fellini funeral” look. LaChapelle’s muse, Amanda Lepore, also stopped by, as did former pop star Lance Bass and the photographer Mariano Vivanco, who recently shot reigning pop queen Lady Gaga. Heirs and heiresses of distinct kinds intermingled. Some were scions of Park Avenue fortunes, others were inheritors of the mantle of the original Alig-led club kids. The product was what Kayvon Zand, another On Top host, described as a Studio 54 created anew in summer 2011.

Kayvon Zand at On Top, Standard Hotel. Photograph: Gerry Visco.

On its Fun Fellowship webpage, MAD describes nightlife as “a petri dish for artists to germinate new strains of creativity and spawn fresh artistic collaborations.” Although it may be difficult to measure the scope and depth of these synergetic ties with the precision of a laboratory analysis, it is evident that incubation of collaborative relationships is the value added to the city’s vibrant but often distended artistic realms. The heart of New York culture beats strong because of the collisions occurring in these see-and-be-seen settings, even if the gatherings may be fueled by liquor and libidinous urges and not quite the didactic impulses of a salon. New York parties have always been raucous. But at today’s parties, as the crowd becomes a blur of eye shadow, tattoos, and barely there outfits, index fingers compulsively tap glowing cellphones, creating an ongoing documentation of these parties via Twitter and Facebook. Recording the revelry lingers into the following days as blogs and YouTube videos call back the night’s adventures. With this ever-growing catalogue in place, the would-be stars of nightlife will only seek to shine even brighter.

Photo Credit: Gerry Visco on Flickr

Victor P. Corona

Victor P. Corona. Victor P. Corona, Ph.D., (http://victorpcorona.com) is a sociologist at Columbia University, where he is finishing a book about New York nightlife. He lives in Manhattan. » See other writings

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