“Thank you for giving this bright new morning
So steeped seemed the evening in darkness and blood
Let there be no sadness, no sorrow
There’ll be no road too narrow
There’ll be a new day and its today
–Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “New Morning”
Stumbling, bleary-eyed, back into the outside world, the morning after clubbing isn’t exactly the magic hour. Or at least, not typically.
But, Richard Renaldi’s photographic series Manhattan Sunday not only merely captures the still-awake but not-yet-hungover post-clubbing period of 5, 6 or even 9AM, but it also glamorizes it. While discoballs and poppers lie strewn on the New York City streets, waterlogged in grimy puddles (is there anything sadder?), club goers still maintain their self-fashioned aura–a testament to the enduring power of nightlife to create queer worlds.
On view at Chelsea’s Benrubi Gallery, as well as the subject of a recently published Aperture catalogue, Renaldi’s Manhattan Sunday documents Manhattan’s nightlife scene from 2010 until the present. If that gave you a jolt, don’t worry, it should. With so much romanticism lobbed at New York nightlife from the 70s, 80s and 90s, it’s sometimes hard to remember that a vibrant nightlife scene remains in today’s NYC.
Even though he places his series firmly in the present, Renaldi refuses to ignore the legends of nightlife’s past that continue to influence today’s promoters, club goers and clubs. In the window of Benrubi Gallery, Renaldi places a glowing pink fluorescent sign that lists the major bygone clubs of NYC’s disco heyday from Studio 54 to the Saint and the Roxy.
The neon pairs well with the small project space show I Want Your Love, which brings together photographs and collected nightlife ephemera. This includes a vitrine full of Project X Magazines–the club kid magazine du jour, a bottle of Rush–John Waters’ preferred brand–and a hot pink Donna Summer 45″, which I almost shattered the glass vitrine to steal. With an overwhelming amount of celebratory and yes, filthy photographs hung salon-style, I Want Your Love adds a historical weight to Renaldi’s more contemporary and contemplative Manhattan Sunday photographs.
Perhaps because it’s easier to be nostalgic for past nightlife scenes, I found Renaldi’s Manhattan Sunday photographs much more refreshing and exciting than the project space show. Romanticism is great–don’t get me wrong–but when we only look back to the past, we overlook the important place nightlife still holds for the queer community.
In her book Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making, one of the only theoretical texts focusing on the significance of nightlife for queer world-making, Fiona Buckland writes, “Many people who identify as queer are made worldless, forced to create maps and spaces for themselves, without the support of these more traditional realms” (3). Clubs and bars are where to find these maps and spaces. And with Trump’s recent election, queer nightlife has never seemed so necessary or vital.
The transcendent power of nightlife can be seen in Renaldi’s photographs that depict the early hours inside the clubs themselves. Take, for example, 2:53, which shows a hallucinatory swirl of bodies dancing together. With glimpses of skin flashing by, the photograph portrays the heights of dancing until the wee hours of the morning–the desire, sensuality and altered perception. There is little distinction between the bodies on the dance floor as if the entire space moved as one. It’s a representation of the community forged within these spaces. No matter how short lived.
For Buckland, in Impossible Dance, the dance floor is a space of possibilities. In her conclusion, she discusses the ephemeral but essential changes that can be made in clubs through the flurry of disparate bodies moving together. “Our bodies hold memories,” she explains, “memories of pain, desire, love, of weight and touch, tension and release. In dancing, the body was the location of all these experiences that were not fixed, but that moved and changed as participants moved on the dance floor with the mixing of tracks, rhythms and samples, rupturing and restructuring time and movement again and again. Improvising dance, participants never moved in an empty space. The space of the dance floor and the practice of dancing were like the body, full of histories. Performance in this case might be both a mobilization and a production in the moment of a space of possibilities in which the future is not described or foreseen, but announced, promised, called for in a performative mode. This production in the moment remained fluid and dynamic by means of the individual and community at play improvising from moment to moment” (183).
This sense of possibility within clubs doesn’t even really need the bodies of club goers to be documented as shown in Renaldi’s photograph 4:55. This image depicts an empty stage with a vividly lit curtain. It at once resembles Kevin McCarty’s photographs of Los Angeles punk club and bar stages, discussed by Jose Munoz in Cruising Utopia, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ flowing beaded curtain Untitled (Water). With the title, we know that the show is over. It’s last call. And yet, the stage seems poised in wait for the next performance. It’s not an end or a beginning, the stage–and the club in general–is just in a moment of transition.
This sense of transformative potentiality isn’t only left inside the club, however, as Renaldi proves in his street photographs. Most faithful Filthy Dreams readers will undoubtedly see nightlife as a form of transcendence–even momentary. This isn’t necessarily new. But, what happens when you walk out of that club, blinking your eyes in the sunrise? What happens to that euphoric experience within the club once you walk out? Does it disappear or does it last?
Renaldi’s photographs seem to argue for its continuation. The ecstatic queer world constructed within the club can also move outside with its participants. While the club patrons in his photographs have been banished to the Manhattan streets, there remains a visible connection, community, self-fashioning and almost an indescribable energy in the photographs. In 7:03, a couple holds hands while in 8:23, notorious party personae Ladyfag smokes a cigarette before heading home. Apart from Ladyfag, I couldn’t recognize any of the other figures in the photographs, which gives Renaldi’s vision a relatable sense of universality. These are not unique experiences produced for the lens of his camera, they happen everyday.
With the use of black-and-white, these photographs maintain a dreamlike, otherworldly quality that color might shatter. The blurred excess of nightlife breaks in the unflattering and unforgiving dawn. Not here. It’s as the worlds made by the club goers altered the colors of the city, as seen in his hazy urban landscape shots, to maintain the club’s communal atmosphere. A seamless link occurs between the inside and outside of the clubs, changing not only the club goers’ perception and self-presentation, but the entire city as well.
Speaking about the transformation made possible by the Body Positive T-Dance, a dance for HIV-positive men and their allies, Buckland reveals that leaving the club did not leave this sense of possibility behind. “Walking out of the club was not a reversal of walking in. Something had changed. Sometimes, leaving a club and walking out into the world came as a shock. This shock was revelatory not only of the force of heteronormativity and its fear of those with HIV and AIDS, but also of the sustaining power of cultural practices within events such as the Body Positive T-Dance and their ability to restructure consciousness and to create and celebrate an alternative lifeworld,” she describes. The same could be said of Renaldi’s photographs, which visually represent the restructuring of consciousness in the wake of long nights and harsh mornings.