A new exhibition at La MaMa brings together the various threads of New York City nightlife, art, and HIV/AIDS activism. The close ties were always there but curators, gallerists, and artists seem to be reassessing spaces that are thought to be reserved for escapism and debauchery. Osman Can Yerebakan and Emily Colucci (who has contributed to this blog in the past) are the curatorial team behind Party Out of Bounds: Nightlife as Activism Since 1980. The show has been in the works for two years, so Colucci and her curatorial partner have been able to compile an incredible array of archival materials, photographs, and work by artists who are long gone and contemporary artists and activists who are ensuring the party rages on.
While the connection in some ways seems like an obvious one (harm reduction and safe sex campaigns are ubiquitous in many clubs and underground parties), nightlife and activism’s shared history hasn’t entered the cultural conversation much. “The topic of nightlife is so broad and not that many people have delved into it before,” Emily explained. “And since it hasn’t been researched that much, there are so many people to talk to.”
More and more curators like Emily are becoming interested in the topic. In fact, soon after Party Out of Bounds wraps up, Secrets of the Great Pyramid, which explores the Pyramid Club as “cultural laboratory,” will open October 17 at Howl Arts in the East Village.
But rather than focus on one particular period or one specific club, Emily is more interested in continuities. The show includes older work by artists who have passed away, like Keith Haring, and ephemera related to bygone figures like John Sex and Ethyl Eichelberger. But contemporary artists such as Kia Labeija (an HIV positive woman of color and founder of art collective #GenAIDS) also play a big role in demonstrating that clubs and serial parties are still spaces for AIDS-related activism.
“I think it’s important to recognize the people who have passed and I also think it’s important to put them in conversation with the people who are still around and making work,” Emily explained. “It reminds people that this is not over, this discussion has not ended.”
Of course, it’s hard not to geek out over the aspects of the exhibition that look backwards to the various downtown heydays. People like Aldo Hernandez— a seminal gay nightlife figure and former DJ who founded the wild weekly party MEAT— are sharing their stories.
I met up with Aldo at his East Village apartment to talk about MEAT, which began in 1990 and continued for a little over three years. We sat in the sweltering heat, surrounded by walls and walls of records. Aldo had also managed to hold on to hundreds of photocopied flyers and handouts he made on a weekly basis. One by one he pulled out the flyers, tucked away into drawers– neon papers that depicted anything from lusty muscle men to psychedelic nature forms. But all of them were covered in eye-popping phrases: “Militant Divas,” “Acid Queers,” and of course “EAT MEAT.”
“The thing about back in the day in that neighborhood every sign said ‘Meat’ because it was actually a real meatpacking district back then, so it was a pun,” Aldo explained. “It wasn’t just about sex or vegetarianism. It was like, well, if you want to find this then you have to know the address. There was no sign on our door, it was just the address 432.”
Aldo held his weekly parties at 432 West 14th street in the Meatpacking District, back when it was the gritty center for downtown nightlife. The block is now home to an Apple Store and just around the corner looms the Standard High Line.
“It was mostly guys. Girls were invited, but we hardly got that many girls,” Aldo remembered. It was the early ’90s, when AIDS cases were still rapidly climbing in New York City. Aldo moved here from Southern California in 1985, and as a gay man involved in the music scene, witnessed many of his friends contract HIV and then die from AIDS-related causes. In 1988 he joined Act Up, a grassroots activist effort whose motto is “Silence = Death.”
Politicians and city leaders blamed the crisis on the gay community if they spoke about it at all. AIDS quickly became a public health crisis and while the infected and their loved ones pleaded for access to experimental drugs, their demands were widely ignored. Act Up carried out demonstrations to spread awareness about the importance of these drugs and the reckless ignorance of those in power.
After joining Act Up, Aldo expanded his efforts by teaming up with Art+Positive, which he describes as a group that “responded to AIDsphobia, homophobia, and censorship in the arts.” When he started throwing MEAT, it was only natural that his activist endeavors would become party policy and that other activists spent their nights there. “It was kind of a clubhouse,” Aldo said.
But the club was also a place for freedom and release. “We were pretty conscious about what we were doing, we wanted to make it a place where anybody could go and be themselves, as simple as that sounds. You didn’t have to dress a certain way or have a lot of money. I just thought, I wanna make something where I would actually go,” he recalled.
While Aldo held MEAT in the 14th street space on Saturday nights, Fridays were reserved for Clit Club. “Julie Tolentino started her party basically at the same time,” Aldo recalled. “She told me about the space and we started out biweekly and then both of our parties took off, so within two months we both became weekly events.”
Aldo DJ’d his own parties along with guest DJs– for a long time he went by DJ Nobody’s Pussy before assuming his real name– but he would occasionally fill in at Clit Club too. Though it was an all-female party, Aldo became a sort of honorary member of the scene. But he still kept his distance. “The whole idea was to have a woman’s space,” he concluded.
MEAT was far from mainstream. “We had a reputation for being out on the edge of the gay scene,” Aldo recalled. “Musically, I was pretty adventurous because I was into a lot of different stuff. I come from more of a punk and live music background and I would basically play anything I liked, whether it was Aphex Twin or Kill Kult or I dunno, something more raw, or something electronic, I really didn’t care. If people didn’t like it, they could get their money back and leave.”
While the Meatpacking District is home to some seriously glamorous clubs now (I mean, c’mon there’s TAO, Le Bain…), MEAT was a DIY effort. Aldo didn’t have a ton of money, so he recruited his friends to help him decorate the place on the cheap and tear it down by dawn. “The idea was to have something creative each week, like if it rained and there were umbrellas all over the streets we’d drive around and pick them up then stick them on the ceiling with lights behind them,” he explained.
Video projections, art installations, and photographs were also a major part of the space. “We pushed the art a lot,” Aldo explained. “We would do these installations that would change every week. It wasn’t just disco dolly crap.”
And much like some of the DIY venues we know and love, MEAT didn’t have a cabaret license, a Puritan-sounding designation which is required by booze-serving establishments where there’s dancing. “So we really were underground– I’d say we’d have about 350 people on a good night,” Aldo said. “We’d have skinny go-go dancers and muscly go-go dancers, so the whole range from really effeminate to really masculine was something I thought was good. Because you know, there are all kinds of people out there. I tried to reflect that in everything— the staff, we tried to make sure everyone was a part of it. “
Though Aldo describes the people who ran MEAT as having “very strong ethics,” when it came to identity politics and acceptance, of course this was still a party. Aldo recalled a night in which he DJ’d on mushrooms. “It sounded great at the time,” he recalled. “But it was actually terrible — the songs were cool but the mix was terrible.”
There were drugs, of course, drinking, and overall it was a hyper-sex positive space. “We were into this whole militant eroticism at the time, meaning that we were putting our sex up front, or our feelings about sex out in the open,” Aldo explained. But instead of leaving the bathrooms to get clogged up by hook ups, he installed a what he called the “back room” and what one flyer referred to as the “no-shame video lounge.”
“Not that I’m such a horn-dog, it was just important to me that if people go somewhere and they do want to make out with someone, they don’t have to end up in an alley and compromise themselves because they’re new at it or something,” Aldo explained. “This created a safe and sexy environment for people where they could have a little bit of foreplay.”
Of course, there were limits. Open drug use was not tolerated. “I didn’t care if people did it, but I didn’t want to see it. That means you’re sloppy,” Aldo argued. He even recalled kicking Angel Melendez (the club kid who was eventually killed by Michael Alig) out of the club once. “Angel, he was a really nice guy, I liked him, but he was known for selling ecstasy,” Aldo recounted. “He helped me sometimes with getting go-go dancers– we had some guys from the Latino Fan Club who did some stripping there one night– and he was a sweet guy, but I was like, ‘I know you like to sell ecstasy, so if I see you, you’re out of there.'”
As for the boom boom room, Aldo installed monitors to make sure things didn’t go beyond first or second base. “We had these funny little signs that said, ‘No lips below the hips,'” he recalled. “It was a good place to play around, make out, and feel each other up, but anything really serious, we weren’t having that. If you wanted to go further you could take it home.”
The emphasis on safety made sense. At this point in the game there was still a great deal of fear, but people knew how to protect themselves against HIV infection. “There was the very early ‘80s, when nothing was known and then there was the late ’80s when the Health Department began to shut down clubs like the Mine Shaft, New St. Marks Bathhouse, and the Anvil for fear of transmission,” Emily explained. “In the ‘90s– places like MEAT, these were really activist spaces– that fear of transmission was very similar to the late ‘80s.”
It wasn’t until 1995, when the first protease inhibitor was approved by the FDA, and MEAT was long gone, that partying returned to a sort of carefree abandon. “I think nightlife took a turn to be even more escapist,” Emily said. “But every club had a different culture.”
And while MEAT’s “erotic lounge” got a lot of bad press and was met with misconceptions about what exactly went on there, Aldo argued that it actually helped to reduce situations in which people were even more at risk for contracting HIV.
“I remember the first time I came to New York, I was staying in this really skanky place, you couldn’t even have somebody come to your room and I go to this bar that looks like an airstream. It was decorated with some Christmas lights and there were all these crazy people and I ended up with some guy in an alley,” Aldo recalled. “Nothing really horrible happened, but I kept thinking, ‘Wow, it would be so much more fun if we could be somewhere, like, why do I have to be so fuckin’ shady and in the dark about this?’ And that was really the seed of the whole thing.”
In fighting AIDSphobia and promoting a culture that was open about sexuality, MEAT was an important part of the activist effort. As their flyers often read, the partygoers saw themselves as, “Loud, Positive, Raving, Queer.”
And it wasn’t simply about rhetoric, MEAT often held benefits and contributed their profits to Act Up as well as organizations like the Women’s Health Activism Committee.
Eventually, the controversy regarding the back room became too much and cops were repeatedly raiding the place, draining Aldo of money. “These busts were really nasty,” Aldo said. “We were really trying to be treated equally, even after Stonewall. I don’t think people realize that things didn’t change because of Stonewall it was the tipping point, but change was slow– it was bullshit, the Clit Club was harassed even more.”
The last straw was when NBC broadcast a news report that Aldo claims mistakenly attributed a scene filmed at a sex club to MEAT. “I ended it after a few years, but for a little club I had some real influence,” he said. “I always believe it’s better to go out on top.”
“It’s really interesting to me that these were places of community as well as places to hand out safe sex brochures, condoms– you know the more obvious AIDS activism– but also, it’s just a place of conversation too,” Emily pointed out.
Aldo continued to throw parties under new names and at different locations, but he remembers MEAT very fondly. And as the exhibition demonstrates, this era was just a small part of Aldo’s many years of activism. Party Out of Bounds shows that nightlife activism continues even now with events like No Pants No Problem.
“These spaces can be a place of escape, but they can also be a place of information and communication,” Emily said. Nightlife, as the realm of fantasy and experimentation where you can try on new personas and momentarily step out of real life entirely, offers a unique environment where people can push the envelope in ways that are regarded as unacceptable in daytime life. That’s why it’s not surprising the real radicalism happens after the sun goes down.