“THE FUN: a fellowship in the social practice of nightlife”—is a radical project of the Museum of Art and Design that deserves praise and critical attention. Standing in stark contrast to this fellowship are an accompanying book and conference, both debuting at the MAD this past weekend.
The genius of THE FUN as a granting program is to recognize nightlife as a valid form of artistic practice with its own history and complex set of possibilities, deeply connected to all forms of culture in NYC. To do this FUN gives artists working in nightlife “unrestricted funds” and logistical support to realize projects—so far over $50,000 has been dispersed over three years. Most visionary is that the funded events happen in the nightlife world and not in the museum.
THE FUN’s vital gesture is toward expanding our aesthetic and conceptual vocabulary to encompass forms of experience that, for very clear reasons connected to race, sex, and class, are not properly considered within art discourse. It thankfully makes us enlarge our conversation, recognizing connections that already exist.
This leads me to why the “FUN conference” is problematic. To be fair, “conferences” are almost always horrible: it is an overdetermined framework marked by a particularly boring aesthetic. Its not even an interesting irony to think of a bunch of people sitting in a room at 11am on a Saturday morning talking about “fun” in the least fun possible ways. Beyond that, it is actually a destructive transposition: moving nightlife into pseudo-academic language. The very idea of this conference upholds the “museum” and “academy” as validating mechanisms, when the whole point of nightlife is that IT VALIDATES ITSELF. This tension was illustrated over and over again: one audience member asked a group of nightlife personalities if being called “social artists” will change what they do—blank stares—”it doesn’t change anything” they all said.
Largely the panelists came off charming and smart, but it was relentlessly awkward asking them to articulate what they do in an alien tongue for someone else’s agenda. There is something ungenerous on the part of the well-intentioned organizers to put such interesting people in a structure where they are both ill at ease and not shown to their best advantage.
The conference was connected to the publication “THE FUN: The Social Practice of Nightlife in NYC” edited by Jake Yuzna, who masterminds the whole FUN operation. In his framing essay Yuzna rams together a lot of disparate activities under the banner “nightlife” without attending to any of their specific aspects, aesthetic or otherwise. His thesis is constructed from glosses on over-played theoretical “turns” (Lind’s “Collaborative” and Bishop’s “Social”). This is then mixed with ideas about “ritual” pulled from an anthropological text on an Anatolian temple and a snippet from Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s “Psychic Bible”, producing a conceptual incoherence where everything slides into everything else in a mist of primal “chemical communication”. The profiles of nightlife artists further illustrates these problems, offering almost no information on what they do or how they think about it. It is a picture book where the images—almost all of which are bizarrely small and horrendously stuttered around the page—have no captions, so it all just looks like some Tumblr.
The valuable parts are the “oral histories” that include Rob Roth talking about his party “Click and Drag” as well as a conversation between Ladyfag, Suzanne Bartsch, Desi Santiago and Brian Butterick—moderated by Mr. Downtown himself Michael Musto. (More of these oral histories in the next volume please!)
Unlike the actual FUN fellowship program, the book and conference have all the bad parts of the academic art world (boring panels and jargon about “hospitable turns”) with none of the advantages (substantive critical analysis). Furthermore they have all the problems of nightlife itself (grating superficiality) with none of the pay-offs (actual subversive fun).
I admire what Jake Yuzna is doing with this program at the Museum of Art and Design which is precisely why I wrote this. I want THE FUN to really push the boundaries its existence seems to question. As it stands, the book and conference reduce the radical gesture of looking at nightlife to the status of yet more “material” for institutional machinery to process. Thankfully THE FUN will go on, and these are merely growing pains in what will be its larger and important impact.
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—Contributed by Jarrett Earnest