exploring the utopia of london's club land with angel rose
Earlier this month, artist Angel Rose curated and hosted Fun City: Utopia on the Dancefloor, an event at London's Somerset House which featured lectures, performances, screenings and panel discussions reflecting upon the utopian (and occasionally...
The history of London's club scene is both rich and distinct. While in the mid 20th century, British subcultural movements such as mods, teddy boys or punk rockers utilised night clubs as places to congregate, in the early 1980s, London spaces like The Blitz, Mud Club, The Batcave and Taboo transformed clubbing from a youth culture pastime, into a creative revolution.
These clubs - and the characters that filled them - would be generally described as either central or satellite to the early 80s New Romantic movement, characterised by outrageous outfits and post-punk music, as well as progressive attitudes towards art, sex and politics. Within the movement, dressing for clubbing became an art form and the outfits exhibited by New Romantics raised questions about the construction of identity, gender and history. In the words of Dave Halsam: "the New Romantics didn't just wear mad clothes, they became new people."
The promise of "becoming who you really are" is something that is ingrained into the mythology of the city and the core values of New Romanticism - namely fun, flamboyance and personal freedom - can still be felt at the heart of the today's club scene, particularly within its alternative and queer club spaces. While it may be easy to romanticise countercultural movements of the past, the notion of London as a permissive paradise still attracts thousands of young creatives to the city each year.
However, there is something about clubbing that goes beyond fashion or youth culture. While these two things may motivate many club scenes, the club experience that I privilege is something more universal. Trends will come and go, but the experience of totally losing your shit on a sweaty dance floor among a sea of smiling strangers is the staple of any good night out, regardless of subcultural affinities.
For me, dancing is the most liberating element of clubbing. The nightclub dance floor is a distinct social space and the way in which we experience crowds of strangers in a club is dramatically different from the way we experience crowds in daily city life. The atmospherics of most clubs - flashing lights, smoke, and loud music - work alongside the crowd to facilitate an experience of intimacy amongst the strangers around you, in turn creating a utopian affect. The exuberance and intensity of the dance floor is distinct from other types of public spaces in Britain and notably pronounced amongst the dysphoria of the digital age.
This sense of intimacy found on the dancefloor challenges societal norms around trust and pleasure in a profound way. The dancefloor asks you to consider your neighbour as kin. Catching a stranger's eye on the tube is fiercely avoided by most city-dwellers but on a nightclub dance floor, random eye contact might be responded to with a sweaty smile or a knowing wink. To smile with a stranger is rare thing in this city. I understand that these moments of eye contact that I'm describing are small, microscopic even, but they are important when we compare them to other daily exchanges of city life, so often suffused with anxiety and mistrust.
Clubs have the potential to bring us together in ways that would be unthinkable in other contexts. Yet despite this, we are facing a particularly challenging time for British nightlife. Over half of the UK's nightclubs have been shut down in the past ten years. London specifically has lost a third of its music venues since 2008 and we've witnessed the closure of many iconic nightlife venues such as Madame Jojo's, Ghetto, Plastic People, Turnmills, Buffalo Bar and The George and Dragon - all of which were once home to some of city's most exciting subcultures and music scenes.
One of the main causes of these closures has been gentrification: a complex process in which club venues fall victims of their own success and nearby homes end up being rented by people who want the cultural capital of living in a "cool" or "up and coming area" but don't want the noise that comes with it. However gentrification is not the only issue.
The digital age has brought us together in ways that have arguably made the social aspect of nightclubs obsolete. Apps like Grindr and other social networks are being used to connect us to new friends, new music, recreational drugs and potential lovers - all things that the previous generation would have pursued through nightlife.
Some have argued that the decline in nightlife reflects a lack of interest from our generation. We've been labeled "generation sensible." Millennials are portrayed as group of "saffies" too preoccupied with health and wealth to be interested in the excess and indulgences of club life. Well I'm a millennial and I am certainly no saffie.
Perhaps the problem isn't a lack of interest, but a lack of access. As many of you reading this will be able to contest, London is a demanding city. Even if you've got what it takes to make it, and you can afford to stay living here, that doesn't mean you'll have the extra financial and social capital to be able go out every weekend.
For me though, nightclubs are not just about my filling leisure time and spending surplus cash. It's clear that clubs make a huge cultural and economic contribution to the country, but they also hold a more personal abstract meaning for many club-goers, including myself, which cannot always be articulated within the language of value and productivity.
For me the club experience is transcendental and this is specific to my own body, as a woman, and as a fat person. If dancing at a club is a form of social liberation, then I would argue that the effects of this liberation are amplified when enacted out by non-normative bodies and marginalised communities.
If you want to find me at a club, you will most likely spot me spinning around like Stevie Knicks in a feather negligée in the basement of VFD (formerly Vogue Fabrics). The dance floor of VFD is one place where I am allowed to savor such visibility, without fear of censure or ridicule. To me, VFD is truly queer space because brings together people of varied background and taste that share an unspoken affinity, as opposed to a subscription to a fixed identify trait. I am often dismissed as a "fag hag" and felt ostracised or objectified as woman at other London gay clubs but I have never felt that way at VFD.
Part of the anti-fat bias is based on the idea of fat as a violation of physical space. My body is distributive in other public spaces - it takes up more space than is considered appropriate. On my way to any club I will usually receive catcalls such as "put it away love" or "nice face shame about the thighs". However, as soon as I enter the club, the things about me that might have provoked those comments are transformed from insults to accolades.
The nightclub dance floor allows me to be as big and bold as I truly feel, in a world that tells me I should be smaller. One needn't look further than the likes of Leigh Bowery, Divine, Scottee and Sue Tilley to find examples of larger than life icons who have embraced their size as a form power and used it to their artistic advantage. Within the London queer club scene, I have found one place where the saying "the bigger the better" really does ring true - whether it's your size, style, personality or vision.
At the Somerset House event, I asked whether the feelings of euphoria we feel at clubs could be understood as utopian. The type of fun experienced by club goers, including myself can feel feel liberating on many levels. However, its quite easy to conflate feeling free, with actually being free. How do factors such as race class privilege and gender reconfigure themselves inside the nightclub? How can a nightclub function as a permissive, inclusive space, without setting some boundaries in order to maintain it? What would those boundaries look like, and would upholding them come at the exclusion and expense of outsiders?
Perhaps it is, that the clubs themselves are not utopias, but the temporary euphoria they provide reminds us of what a utopia might feel like. To apply utopianism to clubbing in an active way would be to acknowledge this utopic feeling, and ask, "Why can it not be like this all the time? This question opens up the clubbing experience to larger questions about identity community and boundaries we create between self and other.
Some would say it's simply a romanticisation to think that getting dressed up and dancing till four in the morning is a route to utopia. They would contest the idea that clubbing incites social change on a "real" level. But then again, utopia isn't a real place, its original Greek translation means "no-place." Utopia is a image of hope that we can return to in times when we need it most. In our current political climate I think we need hope more than ever, wherever we can find it, even on a nightclub dance floor. Nightclubs might not have the capability to change the world, but they certainly have changed mine.
Angel Rose's The Cool Universe is on show as part of Utopian Voices Here at London's Somerset House until 29 August.
Text Angel Rose
Photography Misha MN
Excerpt from The Cool Universe written and directed by Angel Rose
Videography by Sam Stringer
Narrated by Simon Taylor