hannah baer on this year’s hell – Artforum

IN THE SUMMER of the 2020 uprising, a friend who first brought me to some of the famous German clubs asked me what to expect at an illegal march through a large city. She was maybe nervous, and I was trying to be reassuring. I thought there were certain parts she would already understand from raving, and I began to picture a Venn diagram. Bring water. Wear black, a hoodie, sunglasses and other kinds of face coverings. Remember that its durational and prepare to push through exhaustion. You will see people from every part of your life. You will make new friends with people just because you saw them a couple of times at different points in the protest. Be prepared for it to get weird, maybe a little scary. Be prepared to move fast in an emergency. Keep track of the people you came with. Everyone will be looking out for everyone. She texted me twenty-four hours later: You were right, there were parts that were like raving.

Party spaces arent intrinsically revolutionary spaces, but some parties are like revolutionary spaces. Part of it is the way alienation cracks open and people are confronted with one another. At the rave, if you see someone lying on the floor, you stop and check on them. And when you do stop and check on someone at the rave, one of the most surprising things is how, if they get up, they often just want to keep dancing. This is part of it too: The rave teaches me about revolution because its durational. You are invited to keep going, keep dancing, perhaps past when you are sore or want to sleep. This doggedness is not the same as commitment to revolutionary movements, but its not unrelated either. There is a pleasure in durational activity and a relinquishing of pleasure. As I said to a friend recently, half an hour before dawn broke: It doesnt even matter if I like it. Im going to keep going.

As the coronavirus pandemic descended on New York and the ensuing revolutionary urgency erupted, one loosely affiliated community with a collectivealbeit perhaps rustymemory of lawless relationships to public space came forward. This group could be called ravers. Occupying areas that real estate agents and city bureaucrats hadnt yet monetized, we wasted the hours when we should have been sleeping before going to work, expending excess energy, making excess heat, with no profit to show for it, nothing material to be produced, passed on, or claimed. Impossible to capture in part because of peoples shame about partying when it was forbidden, these experiences didnt yield so easily to the rapid-reproduction-consumption disposability of Instagram Stories. People went out seemingly because the urge to gather had become overwhelming. The normal way of doing things had been destabilized.

Kiki tells me that the latest climate research states that, as of November 2021, without immediate radical action, global temperatures will rise by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the next six to ten years. One question you may have asked yourself in the year or so since the beginning of the pandemic and the uprising and amid the impending threat of climate crisis: Why do anything in public if it isnt directly contributing to revolution? I have asked myself this question around raving over and over in the past two years in New York City and answered it differently at different times.

DYSTOPIAS

Even before The Matrix Reloaded (2003), everyone knew that raving would persist postapocalypse. In the present day, there are two ways raving can be dystopian. One is goth: everyone dancing in a place no one particularly wants to be (an abandoned industrial building, the middle of a cornfield, under a bridge), at a time when no one wants to be awake, to sounds basically no one except the people under the bridge wants to hear at volumes that most people dont want to hear. Add to that, during a different part of the pandemic, that no one was supposed to be hanging out. Anyone who knows can come, but not everyone wants to.

The second way it can be dystopianthe normie wayis people waiting in long lines to get into crowded nightclubs where the price of admission is often more than the price of a cheap meal for several people, spending wages they made using their bodies, bodies that they will then effectively disable with drugs to help them make meaning out of meaninglessnessand avoid sleepand also to just move around all night toward a supposed catharsis. While some portion of their fee will go to the working artist playing the music, most of it will go to the (probably) white man who owns the venue and pays shitty wages to the bartender and sound people and security and janitors and whoever else works there. This whole process then gets narrated as subversive, as a way of being part of a community, when in reality peoples dominant emotion in the space is around inclusion/exclusion. People pay to devastate their bodies to offset the drudgery and alienation of wage labor, competing for entry and various kinds of clout, while the only winner at the end of the night is probably a cringey bro with a trust fund who started a dance-music venue.

Of course, broad-strokes dichotomies fail us, and part of the reason why, in this case, is that big clubs can actually be fun. Thats why the people with money in New York who care about electronic music are trying to copy the big clubs in Europe instead of just throwing generator parties until the cops come. Its also true, perhaps dispiritingly, that throwing generator parties until the cops come is labor-intensive and sometimes fruitless-feeling, especially in a city where most people have to work to live and dont have much free time or extra money, where space is scarce and sound carries and the police force is larger than the militaries of most countries.

The arc of raving in New York before, early, and late in the pandemic is a story of the normie-dystopian-nightlife world giving way to the goth-dystopian-nightlife world, then ebbing back in fits and starts, in part because the government said so. This process was emotional and hallucinatory and raised questions for me about labor, politics, and spirituality. In the flow of ones life, staying up all night possibly intoxicated and dancing can be a disruptive shock, an opening for alternative ways of thinking and feeling. In the flow of labor in late capitalism, the pandemic was a disruptive shock, as was the political upheaval that followed.

PLUR

There are clichs in how people talk down to and thereby differentiate themselves from one another in rave space. Some people are corny. Some people are G demons or clout chasers. Some people like the music too slow, others like it too fast. Some people dont care about the music or only care about getting fucked upor just getting fucked. People are straight, cis, vanilla, too old, too young, too horny, not horny enough. Peoples bad feelings about themselves get projected outward; peoples feelings of admiration and desire for one another refract inward. People make enemies with people theyve barely spoken with; people fuck each other without speaking at all.

I first learned about raves in middle school from two girls in the grade above me who liked jam bands and punk bands and knew how to get acid. They showed me a Happy2Bhardcore CD and told me about PLUR, the raving motto: Peace Love Unity Respect. We wrote it in Sharpie on our shredded oversize jeans, already covered in patches and pins advertising bands and social movements. As a preteen, I understood rave culture to be continuous with Unitarian Universalist consa comparison that Chrissy reminded me of again last yearand Phish concerts and festival culture, where happy-go-lucky young people stayed up all night taking MDMA and making out with new best friends. I watched movies like Groove (2000) and Paris Is Burning (1990). I read Urb magazine and Erowid accounts of raves and fantasized about going to London or Detroit or New York and dancing.

In my adulthood, I came to queer underground rave culture in Philadelphia, where parties in the basements of row houses and old factory buildings were some of the first places in my early transition where I shared space almost entirely with other trans femme people, from the door person to the DJs to the drug dealers. These werent the PLUR spaces I grew up imagining, because you cant fight white supremacy with PLUR only. These raves were cutty, they were not inclusive per se, and they were deliberately for some people and not others. There were overt and covert racial and class tensions, and sometimes they got worked out or exploded, and other times they just crackled and dissipated along with the sexual tension, the music itself, the pull of utopia pulsing underneath the hiss of dystopia that defines queer nightlife in our time. At this point in my life, these parties seemed connected to survival in both directions. On the one hand, traveling to them late at night, I was either going to crash my car driving inebriated or get assaulted walking around in my outfit. On the other, my experience of early transition was so destabilizing and desolate that nightlife offered a respite.

In the spring of 2019, Lydo told me that going out in New York was a game of avoiding cell-phone parties. A cell-phone party is different from a rave because at a cell-phone party everyone is doing coke and looking at their phone. No one has ever said this to me exactly, but it is my experience that ravers dont have to do coke. The cell-phone party is predicated on the model of conspicuous consumption: party-as-commodity, self-as-commodity, outfit-as-commodity, everything to be bought and sold and compared. In spaces such as these, no matter how people on the margins are lifted up, the emphasis on commodification almost always necessitates the presence of a rich, usually white, usually male person who gatekeeps the behavior and decisions of the marginalized people supposedly being lifted. No one gets free at a cell-phone party.

In the flow of ones life, staying up all night possibly intoxicated and dancing can be a disruptive shock, an opening for alternative ways of thinking and feeling.

Part of the special strangeness of the 2020 goth-dystopian parties was that no one had the guts to film them (except maybe a handful of Gen Z edgelords and some of the downtown cell-phone-party kids). Part of this was pandemic etiquette; we all knew there could be material consequences for gathering during that time. But a deeper part was the commodification of the experience falling away in the face of the urgency of partying during the pandemic. The haunted self-hatred of culture-industry spacesof people in pain trying to link a sense of their own value to the perceived value of their public rolewas gone. It was so searingly urgent to be at the party that some of the image-conscious, whos-in-whos-out NYC substrate crusted off and we were just in awe of being able to be out, to see one another, to again encounter people in real public space.

Critically, many of these early pandemic parties were free. Of course, creepy grifter straights threw indoor plague raves where you had to pay, but the queer partiesthe hard-techno partieswere mostly outside. There was no way to charge admission because there were no doors. There usually wasnt even a bar. It was all a labor of love, as the expression goes, and anyone could come.

Once people were getting vaccinated, but before the nightclubs opened, there was a glut of bizarre, chaotic warehouse parties. These seemed to be thrown by people who were new to it, rife with incoherent drop points, nervous teenage bouncers screaming at party guests ten or fifteen years their senior in lines that wrapped around blocks, people passing out and no one being able to find the Narcan promised on the flyer, most nights cops, sometimes ambulances, and often limited emergency exits. At one of these parties, a friend told me about finding someone passed out and being charged $5 to buy them a bottle of water. This was how we raved when we could make money but didnt have the integrity or decorum of the clubs.

Parker described to me lecturing a green (i.e., newbie) party crew seeking to capitalize on the gold rush of mid- and late-pandemic parties: They couldnt throw a good rave if they were all in the VIP room blowing ketamine. You have to talk to the people at the party, Parker explained. This is part of the true, noncommodifiable labor of the rave, and part of whats sacred about hosting a party: Youre on the line for how people feel in a space, and that means how you act toward them matters. If you have disdain or contempt for the people who come to your party, eventually no one will.

PROTAGONISM

Perhaps one of the sweetest parts of the rave is the part where anyone gets to be a queen, everyone gets to debut their look, everyone gets to experiment with being seen, with feeling themselves. Especially for trans people, whose literal embodiment and presentation are often contested with violence, appearing in publicwhile being safe, sexualized, and messy and having our beauty reflected to usis unspeakably vital. Especially after a year when it was often forbidden to venture into public space merely for pleasure.

Who gets to be a main character in capitalism, in white supremacy, during climate apocalypse? Subcultures prop up idols, but in New York the underground idolatry leaks and ossifies. Subculture heroes long to be mainstream, while the mainstream rich men, johns, benefactors, and investors long for respect in the underground, throw around money and make promises in order to get . . . something. The owners, the enfranchised, ask the marginalized to prop up their own images and stories about themselves, hoping to be set free too.

The revolutionary socialist think tank Left Roots published, in a pamphlet several years ago, an article about protagonism, which is the idea that movements for justice need to center the lives and stories of the specific people struggling for justice. I invoke this writing cautiously; I dont want to trivialize the work of those who devote their lives to radical social change by comparing that work to debauched nightlife. The question, however, of who we place in the center and how we treat them is a defining element of rave spaces.

The space of nightlife, even in the most goth-dystopian plague-rave moments, is undeniably glamorous. Even in the most pissed, dripping-walls, sewage-ass, one-exit, no-fire-safety industrial shithole with a broken PA, theres glamour. The promise of this glamour, the sparkle of getting to appear in the illicit space, of getting to trespass into the lawless underworld, is intoxicating.

This promise pulls us toward these spaces, and the premise of intrinsic competition in capitalism tempts us to elevate ourselves above others, to be the icon at the expense of everyone else, to hold those we perceive as lesser in contempt. Being the main character is addictive, but wanting to be the main character at the expense of others, especially people paying money to share space with you, is callous. Capitalism is full of competition frameworks, which are applied to every possible domain of life and experience. Truly transgressive spaces subvert such obvious competition/dominance frameworks, asking what can coexist with, underneath, or instead of competition.

Its not that I never experience disgust at the rave. I am often disgusted by myself and am reminded of this disgust when I see someone who reminds me of some insecurity of mine. An idea in psychodynamic psychotherapy is that if someone leaves you feeling self-hatred, you may have felt a trace of their self-hatred. I sometimes use this idea to help me feel compassion for other peoples harshness or coldness in public space. I also try not to externalize my self-hatred; I dont want my bad feelings toward myself to leave a residue on someone else.

Liberatory protagonism in nightlife space would mean, on some level, centering everyone at the party, even the teenager who doesnt know anyone and isnt out to the family they still live with, the person who has to walk twenty blocks in heels because they cant afford a car, the people who set up and clean up. Its not that we dont want idols, leaders, heroes, queens, but the pillars of nightlife, the ones who will sustain and build and deepen the culture, will have deep reverence for the protagonism of every single person who enters the party, at least until a cop comes in.

At a queer rave in a rural beach town in Greece, an old man with leathery skin in a loose tank top dances hard with a crew of faggots from Berlin and Paris. I try to imagine what it would be like if elders who grew up on the block in the New York clubs were known by the promoters, allowed in the club for free, welcomed by the hosts. As I watch the man dance, I remember something Kiki told me about Europe, which is that here older adults are allowed to have sexuality. In the US, sexualized elders are fodder for bro-y comedy movies, but in Europe, for some reason, the old are allowed in the club, allowed to dance, allowed to be sexy.

Protagonism means humanizing people across structural divides like race and class but also age. It requires Gen X and older millennial ravers to have reverence for the teenagers who can stay up all night for days on end, and it asks teenagers to put on their elders when the elders have wants or needs. If raving contains subversive tendencies, protagonism is perhaps the sine qua non of realizing them. Do you want everyone to be seen and felt and to feel themselves? Do you want everyone to transcend? And if you do, how are you going to support and connect with them?

PSYCHEDELIA

I was recently given occasion to explain to a stranger exactly what (I believe) a rave is. I was in fact headed to a ravein the woods a few hours outside New Yorkand was taking a Lyft from the Walmart where I had left my car. The Lyft driver had a music note tattooed on his cheek; my app told me his name was Titus, which I thought was cool. I had been standing alone in the parking lot of a rural shopping center wearing a floor-length black gown, black running shoes, and sunglasses at 9 PM. He asked me where I was going. I said a rave.

What is that? he asked. A drug party?

Some people take a lot of drugs, I replied. Some people dont do any drugs.

So what makes it a rave?

It goes until the sun comes up. Its also really loud, and there are usually a lot of fog and lights.

Do people do shrooms?

Some people.

Have you tried shrooms?

Yes.

I love shrooms.

Not sure what to say, I just looked at him in the rearview and nodded.

What else do people do? he asked.

Ketamine.

Whats that?

Just then, we drove by a group of people walking down the side of the country road in the same direction we were headed, each in an incongruous mix of too-small and too-large items of mostly black clothing.

Its what those people are doing, I said.

BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, there was a party spot in a space behind a fried-chicken restaurant on a commercial street in Bushwick where you could just walk in the back, through the kitchen, and into a room that was so full of fog you could see only a few feet in front of you. At some point in 2019, parties at this venue began to get worse because, allegedly, the owner got mad about all the fog seeping through the door, going into the front of the chicken restaurant, and scaring the customers. Its odd he didnt think the clearly audible 160-plus-bpm pounding sound would scare them, just the fog, but anyways. Later parties there didnt have any fog, and you could just see you were in a relatively small room, and it was kind of underwhelming.

But in the days of the fog fog fog, there was one night when a small circle of partygoersT-girls and several topless cis gaysspilled a large quantity of ketamine onto one persons sweaty forearm. It was an accident, and it was not clear how to remediate it except for them to do all the ketamine, which they sniffed and snorted and licked until the forearm was clean. I felt g-d that night for sure, one moment so hard that a friend who missed the original spill asked if I was OK, because I was leaning against a wall, eyes closed, with one arm high above my head, palm flat against the cool dry surface, seeing only white light.

I could feel my heartbeat and the bass at the same time, and then I realized that everyone elses heart in the room was beating. In that moment, thinking about everyones heartbeatsomething I had felt and written about beforeI felt something new, namely, the presence of everyones memories, for their entire lives. Everyone in the room had a burning trail of memories tethered to them, lengthening every second like a reverse candlewick, an immolating thread at the site of heat of the present, and suspending each persons thread of memories were their ancestors. This was very strange, and I wept to know that all of us were dancing with our ancestors that night and every night, some of our ancestors having tried to kill or enslave other of our ancestors, some of our ancestors never having heard amplified music or watched two girls with dicks jerk each other off, some of them never having K-holed.

In discussing this piece with me, Erica Dawn shared that various friends of late had asked if its permissible to experience pleasure in this time; ravers during the early pandemic asked this question and were met with a resounding response. On my birthday, in the summer of 2020, a loose crew of ravers attempted to throw an illegal rave as protest in Brooklyn. This was an experiment; the promoters put out a flyer on a Telegram chat instead of simply relying on word of mouth. There were plenty of parties, some with flyers, but none so deliberately promoted. The police repeatedly appeared and left, never actively attempting to shut it down. But the internet assertively did try to shut down the party, arguing that it was tasteless to associate nightlife space with antiracist protest, that it was disrespectful to the revolutionary moment and the losses associated with Covid to party during this time. Additionally, many felt that it was simply unsafe to gather.A year later, we would be subjected to memes saying things like If you did drugs in the bathroom at Berghain, dont worry about whats in the vaccine. Ravers seem foolish when they want to preserve their bodies or express concern for bodily well-being, and they seem foolish when they say they want to do politics or transcend. Rave is bimbo.

THERE IS ARGUABLY something intrinsically ridiculous about disrupting ones sleep cycle, especially when powerful cocktails of mysterious substances are involved. There is something purely impracticalthat if recruited for politics even seems crassabout trying to make a bass sound so big you feel the air move around your body when the kick hits and then making that sound hundreds of times a minute for hours and hours until the sun comes up.

Twice in 2021, I have nearly fainted at a rave. The first time, I had spent part of the night talking to Sylvie about Samsara: We are all trying to exit the cycle of birth and death, Han, she told me.

Exit the cycle? Wouldnt that be like leaving the club? I asked, gesturing at the wall of the backyard where we sat, nestled among half-dressed black-clad gender freaks ingesting a cornucopia of substances.

I think I laughed, and she did too. Youll see, Sylvie told me, and shortly I did see, or rather stopped being able to see, entering a racemic trance on the dance floor. In the trance, I was in a loop of identitiesmyself as a child; my friend Cyrus, whom I was dancing with; my father; Sarahs ex-husband (also dancing nearby). Ancestors? I remember the sense of a repeating loop of build and release, like the arc of a song. I remember the feeling of wanting to have an insight or revelation in K-space but experiencing at each moment of buildup just a release into a new buildupno resolution, no grounding. At some point, I think Kiki walked me outside, and I awoke amid a semicircle of friends and curious partygoers.

A couple of months later, it happened again. Sylvie and I were speaking about reincarnation outside the building where the sound system happened to be that night. When I K-holed, I could see myself and Sylvie but I was also removed from experience, behind a layer of gauze. I was plagued by the sense that experience itself was a repeating cycle, like a techno song going into a techno song going into nothingness. I could hear my own voice, see the grassy field outside the party, but through themlike linoleum peeling on the surface of realityI could sense something underneath. I would try to talk and hear my own voice and immediately fall silent because my voice sounded like it was reciting a script. When I finally came to, in the same place, but somehow less clearly seeing the fraying edges of the simulation, I was relieved to see my friend, dewy and orange in the night grass under sodium vapor lights. I asked if we could go dance, and she agreed. For the rest of the night, I was stuck with the question: What would it mean to exit the cycle? Escapism had become its own overt riddle.

BREAKING DAWN

One of the persistently strange and painful things about glimpsing true liberation when living under white-supremacist capitalist oppression is the way the fantasy stays with you even through the drudgery. Spectral traces of freedom and openness and connection persist through alienation, clouding experiences of lack, resentment, violence, and desperation. Such haunting holds true in nightlife spaces, where the girl who helps you when youre G-ing out in a ditch outside the function ignores you a week later, and the girl who ignored you a week ago thanks you for holding her hair back when shes losing it in the bathroom.

Michelle wrote about the need to grieve at the rave in the slow ebb of the pandemic; this was part of the power of this time, the way the pandemic invited interconnection, grief about alienation, rage about cops and billionaires, confusion about whether the state can keep us safe. Part of the reason I still think about PLUR is because the problems that arise in nightlife spaces are as real as the problems that arise in gentrifying neighborhoods, workplaces with sexist bosses, cities with brutal police forces. You have to decide how to talk to the bouncer, who may have different goals than you. You have to decide how to relate to sexual advances, make calculations about safety when you see someone who is really sick in their body and might be fine or might be dying. The first night that one of the big clubs reopened, Kiki and I found Johnny weeping underneath some outdoor stairs, sitting on gravel. We understood that the best thing to do was not to say anything, or to leave, but to join the other friend in simply holding him.

Liberatory protagonism in nightlife space would mean, on some level, centering everyone at the party.

This is part of the utopian shimmer of these spaces. People share resources, take turns using sunglasses, phones, poppers, jackets; people call one another cars, bring one another water, sneak one another in, babysit one anothers friends. People literally hold one another, tuck one anothers hair behind ears, wrap one another in outer garments, dab crumbs of uppers in one anothers noses when someone is browning out.

When you walk in the door of one of the more come-one-come-all megaclubs in Queens, youre given a spiel with a group of other partygoers in a small anteroom. The spiel basically names various forms of discrimination (e.g., racism, sexism, transphobia) and says that they are not tolerated. Partygoers are urged to notify an employee of the club if they experience one.

At the first party I attended at this same club when it reopened, which happened to be a Black techno party on Juneteenth, I was given this spiel with a mixed group of queer ravers and cis white bros in cargo pants. I later saw one of the bros grope someone on the dance floor. I thought about punching him in the throat but decided to close my eyes and keep dancing, partly because the person he groped seemed totally unbothered. Maybe they were even friends. I went into K-space and wondered what would happen if, when you went into the club, they said something like this:

hannah baer is a writer based in New York.

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hannah baer on this year's hell - Artforum

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