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May we suggest

Reviews / August 24, 2016

Can the White Cube Ever Be a Nightclub?

Many museums and galleries have been holding nightclub-style events in an attempt to win new audiences. This transformation is tough, Merray Gerges writes.

I contoured with bronzer. As I scrawl notes, I notice that the turquoise silk pyjama set that I’m wearing nearly matches my cyan nails, my Staedtler Lumograph pencil and the surprisingly resilient admission wristband I’ve been wearing since mid-June, the tracker of the deepening of my tan. I’m self-conscious that the coordination looks purposeful (heaven forbid). Already, lists of must-dos before summer’s end are circulating. Toronto’s public pools shut their doors in 10 days. The pressure of ceaseless leisure, and documenting it, will subside. Summer construction barriers will dwindle. The ennui and the languor of longing brought on by the unforgiving weight of humidity will dissipate. The days you’ll see culottes and those floaty Zara off-the-shoulder tops everywhere are numbered.

When I arrive to the final instalment of It’s Not U It’s Me (INUIM)—a summer dance-party series put on by the namesake collective of self-proclaimed “Toronto party enthusiasts,” hosted by the Power Plant—doors to the summer exhibition are shut. What the artists Nadia Gohar, Sidney Starkman and Thank You Kindly (the latter being a curatorial and production project by Allegra Christie and Ariella Starkman) refer to as a collaborative “idealized desert lounge” installation bridges between the building and the nearby bubble tent that is home to the DJs.

The artists and their peers lounge in the lawn chairs and the skeleton of a futon. Some sit on the layered rugs, occasionally spritzing each other with water from clear spray bottles, while the others play close-range badminton. Fake grapes dot a handful of bowls. Beach balls scatter along the gated periphery that separates the gallery’s outdoor space from throngs of tourists on the Harbourfront pathways, who are watching buskers or peeking in. A beach umbrella sways in what feels like the first breeze in half a year, after months of tension that continuously mounted then evaporated into thin air. A food truck serves burrito-sized sushi. The party moves inside at dusk.

I saunter. When I dance, I am alone, and my body registers glances shot at me. I wonder if I’m either seen as an easy target or a weirdo who has no one to dance with. Have these people never seen anyone dance alone? Have they ever danced alone? I ask my friends. They tell me that people on dance floors, maybe especially dance floors superimposed onto the white cube, seek permission—or precedents—from those around them, so that they might loosen up.

Over the past handful of years, large-scale art institutions have endeavoured to host after-hours events that will make them more than just a museum, a space that is not just an arbiter or gatekeeper of culture and exhibitor or archivist of static history, but also a generative force in the future of culture—and an attractor of so-called new audiences. To large-scale institutions that may be asking themselves how to diversify foot traffic—to not just display culture but to also precipitate it—events like these count as public outreach to people who may not set foot in the gallery without the impetus of a “curated” party where you can be in proximity to art and artists. Precedents like MoMA PS1’s “Warm Up” party, among others, say that they create “platforms for experimentation” and “spaces for collaboration,” and copycats have followed suit.

Earlier this summer, the opening of Theaster Gates’s “How to Build a House Museum” at the Art Gallery of Ontario concluded with a dance party DJed by Chicago house legend Terry Hunter. Inside the exhibition, Gates interrogates the aesthetics, objectives and shortcomings of memorialization by mining and showcasing the legacies of black men who may not be seen in this space without Gates’s insertion. One of the houses is dedicated to Frankie Knuckles, another Chicago house legend (who started a club called the Power Plant, coincidentally, which was open all night) with reassembled liturgical furniture housing a record player that blares Knuckles’s collection to instigate dancing in the gallery.

Gates wondered what to write on the walls to allow people to give themselves permission, recognizing that this transgression usually only happens at the club. “Like, I can’t get the music loud enough. I can’t get the rooms sweating enough. I can’t get the dissention negative enough. I can’t make people sin enough,” he has said.

The club has been touted as a sanctuary, where a rave holds emancipatory potential for bodies prohibited expression due to any range of intersecting oppressions in the real world. So what happens to a rave when an art institution hosts it? At a party like INUIM, where the organizers’ proclamation to “[celebrate] the diverse cultures and DIY community spirit of underground dance music” aspires to draw artists and techno enthusiasts and people who can afford to fork out $40 on a single night out all at once, how can people with disparate agendas navigate a so-called “safe space” in harmony?

The safe-space moderators are marked with green bandanas on their arms, but the only one I saw was the one an organizer introduced me to. Do people, especially those who may be prone to harassment on the dance floor, know that they’re there, or how to enlist their help? What are the pragmatic manifestations of safe-space ideology?

INUIM’s Facebook event pages explicitly state its anti-harassment policies, but to what extent do they manifest on the dance floor, especially when it’s large and tiered and multi-sited? Though these markers may be inconspicuous, security guards are not an option in spaces that are designated as “safe,” since they may resort to violence to diffuse conflict, and may be less attuned to subtle harassment and gender politics on the dance floor. How can the art gallery as dance floor be maintained as a safe sanctuary for vulnerable bodies at an event where many attendees may expect that the gallery will simulate their experience of the club?

I spoke to one of the DJs of that evening, who is based in Toronto and regularly DJs both queer, feminist dance parties at small-scale venues as well as art parties at large-scale institutions. He tells me that while the latter pay guaranteed artist fees, are mindful of accessibility and provide high-quality audio equipment, it “still feels like a shoe-horn” when art galleries attempt to superimpose the dynamics of an intimate dance party onto a large institutional space. In effect, it strips the dance party’s site-specificity by magnifying its scale so much that it becomes difficult to anticipate—and moderate—the crowd.

The DJ tells me that people whose marginalized bodies and identities sought refuge birthed underground rave culture. When the museum appropriates and transposes underground rave culture as an additional source of revenue to draw varied crowds, including the bodies that it may not represent in its exhibitions, it ought to drop the wistful utopian language of emancipation, because the white cube just can’t be a club.

It’s Not U It’s Me’s marketing comes with the subtitle “Are U Committed?” and I can’t help but redirect that question to host institutions.

By the end of the night, most people are lazing on the artificial grass of the Harbourfront Centre’s Exhibition Common—adjacent to Canada Square, which is “destined to become a national landmark of our great country”—that hosts recreational activities like yoga and food concessions. It invites lounging without designation. Perhaps relational art ought to just be hospitable without over-declaring that it will be.

I was hesitant to get my silk pyjamas sweaty, but I’m glad I won’t need to get them dry-cleaned.

Merray Gerges is the summer 2016 editorial resident at Canadian Art.

Merray Gerges

Merray Gerges writes around art rather than about it. She studied art history at NSCAD and journalism at King’s in Halifax, where she co-founded and co-edited CRIT, a free biannual criticism publication. Her reporting and criticism have appeared in Canadian ArtC MagazineMOMUS, Hyperallergic and more, addressing issues ranging from the radical potential (and shortcomings) of intersectional feminist memes and art selfies, to art-world race politics. At Canadian Art, she was editorial resident in 2016, and assistant editor from 2017 to 2019. She's currently the editorial fellow at C Magazine.