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V&A: The history of nightclubbing
A NEW EXHIBITION AT V&A DUNDEE EXAMINES THE HISTORY OF NIGHTCLUBBING – FROM THE 1960S TO THE PRESENT DAY
IT might just be historical symmetry combined with a dash of wishful thinking but there is a school of thought which says the 2020s are going to roar as loudly as the 1920s did. The comparisons between then and now are certainly appealing: a century ago the world emerged from an economic downturn and a pandemic to an era of modernisation and progress shaped by technology and a sense of optimism. It gave us Futurism, fridges, television and the Jazz Age.
If the forecasters are right, it may be about to happen all over again and, if it does, the Bright Young Things of these Roaring Twenties are going to need nightclubs to party in just as much as their sharply dressed forebears did. How appropriate, then, that the first exhibition to be held at the V&A Dundee when it reopens on May 1 is a survey of nightclubs and their design which, though it makes a gesture to nostalgia, also peers into the future. And how ironic that the first cultural sector to emerge from lockdown
should choose to celebrate the one that looks like being last to reopen, the nightclub.
The show is called Night Fever, which readers of a certain vintage will recognise as a Bee Gees song from the iconic 1977 disco film Saturday Night Fever. And if there’s a single nightclub most associated with disco, it’s Studio 54, the famous New York venue to which Manhattan’s elite flocked in the late 1970s. Turn to the index of Andy Warhol’s diaries and you can measure the Studio 54 mentions in inches: there are dozens of them. Unsurprisingly, that club features in Night Fever, as does another Warhol hangout, Xenon, which also catered to Manhattan’s starry fashion crowd.
But New York and disco are far from the whole story. Night Fever looks at clubs in Berlin, Beirut, Detroit, Johannesburg, London – and, yes, Scotland – and does it through the prism of their architecture and interior design, and the way they were branded and promoted through posters and flyers to spin-off enterprises such as record labels and fashion lines.
“It’s the first exhibition ever to look at this incredibly important connection between nightclubs and design and it does that through a chronological approach,” explains curator Kirsty Hassard. “So we go from the 1960s in Italy, with the experimental architects working on pushing the boundaries, to the 1970s with the rise of disco in New York, and then to acid house and rave with the Haçienda in Manchester in the 1980s. Then from the 1990s up until the present day we move to Berlin and London looking at techno and house.”
And so visitors can learn about clubs such as Area in New York, which was founded in 1983 and drew stars like Grace Jones to its hallowed dancefloor. Part of the founding ethos was that every six weeks the 1200 square metre venue would be entirely refurbished, with a budget of up to £25,000 for each costume change. Unsurprisingly Area lasted only four years but among its 25 or so iterations were ones devoted to science fiction, natural history, sport and even suburbia. A team of in-house designers worked on outlandish invitations for each new “look”. One was printed on a cheese slice.
Still in 1980s New York, there was also the Palladium, opened by Studio 54 founders Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and decorated with a massive wall mural by pop art superstar Keith Haring.
Or how about Beirut’s B018, which opened in 1998 in an area that had housed a refugee camp during the long Lebanese civil war? Essentially a bunker set in a concrete disc, its architect Bernard Khoury designed it with a hydraulic roof which, as well as letting in much-needed air, reflected the cityscape thanks to a mirrored underside.
If punters wanted to dance – highly likely under the circumstances – the seat backs folded to make mini-platforms.
When it came to that sort of wow factor, the trailblazers were Italian designers such as Studio 65, a collection of avant-garde architects based in the northern city of Turin, and Gruppo UFO, a radical collective from Florence. Among the creations they worked on in the late 1960s and early 1970s were the subterranean Flash Back (in Piedmont), Barbarella (aimed at “local Flash Gordons”, according to its designers, and located just outside Turin) and the outright bonkers Bamba Issa. Inspired initially by Donald Duck, it was entirely redesigned every year for the duration of its life in the beach resort of Forte dei Marmi.
“It seems like an oxymoron as an architect, but a lot of them weren’t actually interested in doing permanent structures,” says Hassard of these architects and designers. “So nightclubs were the perfect places for them to showcase their ethos and what their design was about but also to create an ephemeral space.”
NOT everything about nightclubs is ephemeral, however, and not everything ended up in a skip every six weeks. Included in the Night Fever exhibition is furniture from an Italian nightclub of the 1960s, examples of club wear and a series of architectural models of clubs such as one created for Ministry of Sound by superstar architect Rem Koolhaas.
That project was eventually scrapped in 2015, creating one of the great what-ifs of clubland. The exhibition also features “pieces” of the Haçienda, the legendary Manchester club that opened in 1982 and became an integral part of the city’s vibrant clubbing and music scene. Pieces?
“When it closed down they sold off every part of the interior,” Hassard explains. “Because it had such status and was held in such affection by people who had been there, people clamoured for pieces of it. So really ordinary items like the floorboards as well as those really iconic striped bollards were sold off and they’re in show. We also have the mirror ball as well.”
It may even be the one that once sent fractured images of Madonna over the watching crowd: the singer performed at the Haçienda on January 27, 1984, just one of the many iconic acts to have graced the stage. (For the record, your correspondent visited the sacred site one drizzly weekday night in the late 1980s and found not Madonna but a bevy of Morrissey lookalikes fresh from a nearby Smiths convention. He can’t vouch for the glitter ball but the striped bollards around the dancefloor were certainly all present and correct.)
Scotland has its place in the story, of course. Night Fever has a section devoted to home-grown clubs so visitors can learn about (or revisit in their minds for a few moments of wistful nostalgia) venues such as Paisley’s Club 69 or the peripatetic Rhumba Club, which began in Perth in 1991 and which has set down at the Citrus Club in Edinburgh, Fat Sam’s in
The outright bonkers Bamba Issa, inspired initially by Donald Duck, was entirely redesigned every year of its life in the beach resort of Forte dei Marmi
Dundee, Bally’s in Arbroath and the Ice Factory in Perth over the course of its 30-year existence. To those names you can add any number of other club nights – Pure, Sativa, Optimo, Big Beat, Fever, UFO or Atlantis – and any number of venues, from the upmarket and flashy to the stickycarpeted and tacky.
On the Scottish scene there’s one venue that stands out, however, and that’s Glasgow’s Sub Club. Unsurprisingly, it features prominently in Night Fever’s Scottish section.
“I think design is enormously important,” says Sub Club managing director Mike Grieve, who has collaborated with the museum’s curatorial team to provide photographs and flyers from the club’s archives.
“The creative industries generally have always been very close with the cutting edge of club culture, so the people who populate the type of club that the Sub Club is tend to be from the creative community. DJs very often happen to be designers as well, so there’s a real crossover.”
AS for the interior design, it’s like a good haircut, he thinks: you don’t always realise it’s there and that’s the skill of it. “Good design often is subliminal. You see the same with architecture. Sure, you can get very spectacular architecture but you also get very simple architecture that people don’t appreciate until they’re actually living in a space, or until history puts it in context. I think that’s very much the case with a club setting.
“It’s definitely the case in the Sub Club, where the layout of the venue is so important to the energy that’s generated within it. That’s all done with careful consideration and a very high level of expertise.”
To underline that, an imaging technique known as lidar has been used to make a scan of the interior of the Sub Club – but empty of people.
“We recognise the fact that nightclubs are a hugely important cultural institutions and out of all of them will be the last to reopen,” says Hassard. “The scan shows the interior of the club how most people never see it. I think it’s really important to portray that but also to show an interior people don’t normally see so they can appreciate the structure.”
Of course not all clubbing experiences bring punters into contact with exquisitely designed furniture, murals by world-famous painters or retracting roofs which reflect the night sky of the Levant. Sometimes the experience is, in the words of Pulp’s 1995 hit Sorted for E’s & Wizz “just 20,000 people standing in a field”. Or an illegal rave, as it’s known.
Either that or it’s a bare white space, a pub basement or a disused warehouse where the people and the music matter, not the décor.
These experiences are as much a part of the club culture story as snazzy furniture and architect-designed spaces, but they’re harder for curators and museums to latch on to, collect and ultimately display.
Wise to that difficulty, Night Fever also includes the artworks A Life of Subversive Joy by Vinca Peterson and Everybody in the Place by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller. The first is a 23metre-long installation made up of photographs and extracts from diaries reflecting a decade of “raving and roaming”, as Petersen puts it. The second is a documentary about acid house fitted out as a lecture by Deller to a group of (fairly nonplussed) London schoolchildren. It’s a warm, erudite and very entertaining contextualisation of what has become known as the Second Summer of Love.
TELLINGLY, few of the dozens of entries relating to Studio 54 in Warhol’s diaries make any mention of what the place looked like. What occupies his artist’s mind is the gossip he picks up, the people he sees and the things they’re wearing. On Tuesday February 14, 1978, for example, he writes: “We went over to
Studio 54 and just everyone was there.” It underlines the point that really it’s people who make a club – people who come together in close proximity and give no thought to such alien concepts as social distancing. Quite the opposite.
Which brings us to the present day and the future of clubbing when the doors are finally thrown open again and punters welcomed back on to the dancefloor. Grieve doesn’t believe clubbers will demand a different experience post-pandemic but he’s aware that public health requirements may reshape that experience for them
“Unfortunately I think most of those things will be an impediment to unfettered enjoyment of the experience of going to a club,” he says. “There’s now going to be an impact in terms of how people access spaces and how they behave once they’re in them.
“I suspect that clubs won’t fully come back to the fore until most of these restrictions are gone completely because social distancing or physical distancing is a non-starter in a club environment. It’s the complete antithesis of what the clubbing experience has to be about, which is social intimacy, close-up physical contact and people sharing moments of euphoria.”
Good design may have a part in helping remove those restrictions. But, even if it can’t, Grieve remains optimistic for the future of clubbing as a cultural activity and for nightclubs as vital centres of youth culture.
“I think people genuinely will value clubs and club experiences more as a result of this because it has been denied them,” he says. “I think at the root of the whole clubbing experience is the desire people have to listen to loud music and to dance.
“That’s never gone away, and whether it’s the Roaring Twenties or the New Roaring Twenties, I think the same basic human emotions are at play. I actually think once we do get properly open I’m looking forward to a really exciting period for clubs.”
Everybody in the house says “Yeah!” to that.
Night Fever opens at V&A Dundee on May 1