During the master, I've visited a range of clubs and parties. In the first period, which roughly corresponds to my first year, my main focus was to understand what club culture is today (as outlined in the previous chapter), how it operates and to find out which aspects I find interesting and inspiring. As from summer 2019, I analysed the scenographic aspects and dramaturgy in much more detail. I found out that the dramaturgy is pretty similar from event to event, yet, in some particular circumstances, you can unravel some hidden ones. Although scenographic decisions are not always taken very conscious (they rely on what exist, the location used, or applied from experience or habit), they can be very effective in the way they affect the partygoers, often in unconscious ways. In that sense, this whole research is an exercise in awareness.
It was not my aim to investigate the whole spectrum. I simply chose the clubs and parties that seemed artistically and politically relevant, mainly within or with connections to the LGBTQIA community. I omitted places that only exist for financial reasons and entertainment, and my selection is therefore not representative at all for the industry. Yet, the observations I'm writing about in this chapter can be applied to the broader spectrum of club culture, and can also be relevant for other social and cultural spaces.
A performative event
One can recognise the special relationship between performer, spectator and scenography in club culture. They are in a constant feedback loop and exchange places — the partygoer becoming performer (by dancing), becoming scenographic (by the costume) while the DJ becomes a spectator of an unfolding performance. As music and dancing are crucial in club culture, one could assume that the DJ is the key element of a party. One could consider him not only as a performer but also as a director, orchestrating the performance arising in front of him. Notwithstanding the central focus on music and DJs in club culture, I argue that the DJ is instead a leading actor and that the true maker is the organiser-promoter. The latter is in control of a much wider spectrum of parameters and tools: the choice of the venue or the design of the club (architecture, floor plan, aesthetics, its position in the city, the sonic qualities of the sound system, the lighting, etc.), the type of music, the political position, the choice of the audience, the house rules, unwritten codes and door policies, etc.
I consider a party and a club night as a performative event directed by the organiser-promoter, using a specific dramaturgy and a variety of scenographic elements. While this approach is certainly not common in practice, it's a very logical step when you compare club culture to theatre. Clubs playing an artistic role in club culture today, do have a strong focus on the development of music aesthetics, often from within their community. In some cases, the promoter acts beyond these aesthetics and takes the other scenographic elements, the dramaturgy and the audience also into account. Audience is a common term in theatre, and it is tempting to use it for people attending a party too, especially before the event starts. However, the term audience is always incorrect, due to its passive connotation and its receptive role: even if a person decides for himself to take the role of a spectator, he might be a performer for someone else. Hence, I will use the term participant, as 'being part of' and the more popular term "crowd" which somewhat defines unity and plurality at the same time. As such, the performative event is potentially a true Total art when it also includes the participants.
Last summer, when I was at Buttons, a party in ://about blank in Berlin, I was trying to formulate my opinion on that party.1 It was a nice one, but I was somewhat disappointed. The people were friendly, the music was good, the spaces were interesting enough, there was a huge garden outside, and it was summer… in Berlin, what more could you ask for? While it's easy to say: "it was a good party, but I like Gay Haze in Brussels more", it was much more difficult to formulate why. Was this a purely subjective opinion, or could I find objective reasons? Eventually, I discovered them by developing a model that connects functions, scenographics, participants and their behaviour.
1. “This Is What A Night At ://About Blank's Wild And Colorful Buttons Party Is Like”. Electronic Beats, 18 May 2018. https://www.electronicbeats.net/a-night-at-about-blanks-buttons/
In the diagram above, I illustrate a number of functions named as spaces. These spaces could be actual physical spaces, but here they should be considered as immaterial. For me, "social space", "space for dancing" and "space for music" are the fundamental ones and many more can be added. The choice for these "spaces" is not a random decision but a deliberate one, made by the organiser-promoter. They have to be translated to the physical environment, by giving them an actual space as well as the suitable scenography. This is not a one-to-one translation between functional space and physical space: several functional spaces can be combined in one and the same physical space as long as the scenographics don't interfere. Moreover, a certain interference doesn't mean that these functions should be placed in completely separate spaces, a small intervention to cancel out the interference can be enough (e.g. adding a curtain, a technical solution or positioning the other function at the opposite side).
To give a simple example: we could imagine a typical, genuine bar. The main functions would be' social space' and' space for drinking'. Translating them into space, the environment should include a bar, where the drinks can be prepared, some bar stools at the bar, where people can talk to the people next to them (possibly strangers) or to the bartender while having their drink. By adding some tables with four chairs per table, you maintain the other functions, but you add a space for friends (or people who know each other), as you're not likely to share a table with people you don't know. The latter decision will have an influence on the variety of clients going to the bar and on the behaviour inside (people choosing either for a high stool or a chair).
Various spaces can coexist in the same physical space, but there are limitations. Imagine the bartender loves music and he wants to share his favourite tunes with his patrons. The music (as a scenographic element) can give the bar a particular atmosphere, add an artistic layer or profile, make the bar more specific, and some patrons might recognise the music and make them happy. So yes, we can call this a space for music, however, this won't be the most important function. People won't stop talking and start listening to the music instead. We could try to use a scenographic technique and turning the volume up, but almost certainly it will just irritate the patrons. I'm sure everyone has experienced this situation and the resulting feeling.
This makes clear not all functions can work together on the same level. To understand this, I'm using the metaphor of an audio mixer. All functions or spaces are assigned to an individual channel with their faders and knobs. It's pretty clear that if you would consider all functions as very important and you move all faders to the maximum, the output will be clipped and distorted. Fading all of them to a lower level might work, but is the resulting sound clearly defined? In other words, doesn't the space become too generic?
It's essential to make a choice of which functions are important and see if they can coexist with each other. In sound this would mean that they sit on another's range in the frequency spectrum, which means they can be combined at the same level without being in each other's way: they can be heard clearly at the same time. In fact, the more channels with different frequencies you combine, the richer the sound becomes. It's a matter of filling the whole spectrum without too much overlap. This mastering, choosing the inputs and their levels, is an artistic choice in this field, which not only affects the sound output, but also the listeners.
Going back to the example of the bar, imagine a jazz bar now. This bar likely has a stage, as it is the resulting scenographic and functional element of a "space for music" and a "space for performances" combined. However, the presence of the stage is not enough. If the stage is not in use, the patrons are likely to talk to each other and have drinks. However, if a band comes on stage, they will become silent and direct their attention to the band and the music. This dramaturgical event is able to shift the functions (or at least their importance) at a specific moment. By adding scenographic elements, we can emphasise this shift, making the impact and resulting behaviour of the patrons more substantial: a piano or other musical instruments on stage prior to the performance will feed the expectations; turning the volume of the music down and directing lights towards the stage will make them attentive. How the patrons react to these changes is more difficult to predict. It depends on how well they know the codes and to which extent they want to conform. Through my research, I found that whenever this behaviour is critical (like in club culture), a selection of the participants is crucial.
From this function-based model, some very fundamental design consequences follow. In the diagram above, we have, on the left, a primary function (space for dancing) and below some related functions; on the right, a common function (space for drinking). All of the functions result in scenographic, dramaturgical or functional elements to be implemented. Translated into space, this results in a dance floor (with specific characteristics) and a bar (which is rather functional). However, when we compare the elements, it's clear that they are very different and sometimes conflicting. As a result, the dance floor and the bar can't share exactly the same physical space. We see that some clubs bring this into practice and others don't. While this might be due to a lack of (physical) space or unawareness, it is most often found in the commercial clubs, where the consumption of drinks has more significant importance than dancing.
When looking back at Buttons, the party that gave me the inspiration for this model, my disappointment came from the fact that I thought that the "space for music" and "space for dancing" would be more critical. Looking at the floor plan, one of the dance floors is also the connecting space towards the toilets turning the narrow corridor in front of the DJ into a passageway. While an enthusiastic crowd could overcome this issue, that night, it was not the case. It is vital to notice that this small flaw in the spatial arrangement (which is an unfortunate result of the shape of the building) influences the behaviour of the participants. As other participants then copy this behaviour, it gets emphasised. A good DJ, as a counterweight, could bring the attention back to music and dancing. However, this can be difficult. It's essential to understand that this issue doesn't stay confined to this specific space on a particular night: the lack of a good vibe in a room might have an influence on the expectations of the participants towards the next parties. Eventually, this could provoke a change of participants that are not so much interested in the music. This shows that small inaccuracies in the design might undermine the artistic concept over time.
Three core elements
When we analyse the basic definition of a club, a social space for dancing, one recognises two functions: social interactions and dancing. Next to that, we distinguish three components: music, participants and environment.
While the music aesthetic could be considered as part of the environment, you actually don't need music and a DJ to dance. But due to its importance in history and common practice, I consider music as a main component. As stated before, the choice of the DJ (and the related music aesthetic) is often the defining criterion for the artistic relevance of the club. Moreover, in a club, sound and music are almost impossible to neglect or hide from. They are often important criteria to go to a club. To put it simply, if you don't like the music aesthetic, you probably won't have a great night out.
The performative event is executed by and in front of the participants. They take the roles of performer and spectator, often at the same time. But they are also the subjects of a ritual experience, as individuals and as a collective. This means that every individual has a role that serves a larger purpose. It is rewarding to have a wide diversity of characters in the performative event. However, they should have a shared understanding of the ritual to be performed. Young people or novices can be included as long as there is a vast majority of initiates. This also means that a particular club night or party can't be regarded as a static, autonomous event. It is part of a series of events that are developed over time, in which "audience building" plays an important role.
When we refer to the environment where club culture takes place, we can easily envisage a club specifically designed and built for this purpose. Maddox is a good example. It gave the architects and engineers the freedom to design and execute to a level of detail and perfection that's difficult to obtain in any other case. However, this is rather exceptional. If we look at club culture today, the most interesting ones use buildings that had different functions before, are temporary, or, like parties, use a venue designed by others. A design like Maddox has a significant drawback: all the aspects are predesigned and executed and sometimes literally cemented in the building, making them nor flexible or adaptable. Moreover, the aesthetics are predefined and can quickly become outdated or boring despite their initial quality.
In that respect, the environment and aesthetic should not be architectonic, but scenographic. Whether the environment is temporal or more permanent, it should serve the performative event both in function and in affect. Indeed, the environment should be affective in two senses: act upon the participant and express emotion. Furthermore, each performative event is different from the other. This characteristic gives space for experiment and development over time, from one night to another. Therefore, the environment should be dynamic, flexible and easily adaptable, instead of being stuck in a preconceived architectural design.
While aesthetics do affect to a certain extent and can undoubtedly be indexical, we should not overestimate them. Cisco Ferrera and Joey Beltram described the Boccaccio as a very glamorous club with an outdated discotheque aesthetic, which was very contradictory to the music aesthetics. Nevertheless, it became the 'holy temple' of the New Beat underground.2
2. See video in the previous chapter.
Towards a culture
Initially, I had the idea to go in much more detail into these three components, as well as to talk about the dramaturgy in club culture. However, describing the environment with all the scenographic elements is not only ambitious. It should also include its influence on the participants. At that point, it becomes complicated. Even if we look into a niche, every party concept or club has a different crowd and provokes a (slightly) different, behaviour. Moreover, the cultural differences between Amsterdam, Brussels and Berlin, are not only noticeable in the behaviour of the participants, but they also have some influence on the scenography. While it's noticeable (I called this research an exercise in awareness), it's difficult to track back and prove the origin. Instead, in the next chapter, I will use my practice to illustrate and apply my findings.