'DISSS-CO (A Fragment)', Douglas Crimp

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Listen to 1525 Collective member Alex Gwyn Davies read an excerpt from art historian, Douglas Crimp's DISSS-CO (A Fragment): From Before Pictures, A Memoir of 1970s New York. In this text, Crimp remembers the ways and sounds of queer nightlife before the onset of AIDS.

In the series Grace Jones: Musings, we listen out for contemporary literary and academic voices that rehearse, record, and resound Jones’ contributions to black and queer imaginaries, looking at the role of music and performance in creating communities of affect and resilience.


Among the papers from the mid-1970s that I kept when I purged my files during a mid-1990s apartment renovation are a few pages of something I had begun writing about disco. They were in a dog-eared folder marked "projects." Everything else in the folder is art-related, including a proposal for a book on contemporary art. I'm amazed now at the hubris of believing I could write a full-scale book about "art from Minimal sculpture forward," but pleasantly surprised to see evidence that I was thinking about contemporary art under the rubric of postmodernism as early as 1976. "The starting point," I wrote, "is to discuss the important shift from Modernism to Post-Modernism."

The few pages on disco in this folder are the only ones I had looked at between the time I wrote them and now. The reason is that they carry a particular sentimental value. Around the time I wrote them, Guy Hocquenghem visited New York and stayed with me in my loft on Chambers Street, and one night while I was out, he read what I'd written. When I returned later, he said to me that such a straightforward description of gay culture was just the sort of thing that gay activists should be writing. I was embarrassed that Guy had found and read the pages. I'm self-conscious about my unfinished writing; this was not at all the sort of writing I did professionally and thus had any confidence in; and, though a couple of years younger than me, Guy was both a heartthrob and an idol. While still in his early twenties, he had been one of the founders of the FHAR (Front Homo sexuel d'Action Revolutionnaire, the French gay liberation organization) and a year later, in 1972, published Homosexual Desire} Although he had subsequently published a second gay liberation tract, L'Apres-mai desfaunes, he was now turning his attention from theory to fiction. He had recently published Fin de section, a collection of short stories, and begun work on his first novel, Love in Relief. Perhaps the storylike way I begin the fragment on disco is what attracted Guy to it. Eventually, in 1980, he would write his own descriptions of gay life in Le Gay voyage, his guide to the gay scene in a number of major cities. Here is what Guy read:

The sun seemed unnaturally bright when we opened the door and walked out onto lower Broadway. Steven adjusted the pitch-black wrap-around sunglasses that he'd put on in the lobby. As we walked down Houston Street toward the Village, our bodies still gyrated, slowing our walk to a rhythmic amble. Moving at all was slightly painful and yet felt inevitable, as if the music had been absorbed by our muscles, especially the obliques, and would go on propelling that uncontrollable back-and-forth hip-swaying forever. On the way up Bedford Street to Seventh Avenue, two guys overtook and passed us. When one was right next to him, Steven drew out under his breath in a reverent whisper, "Disss-co." He gave it the same whooshing, electronic sound as the feedback drone that lingered in our ears, muting the sounds of the early Sunday morning. The two men smiled knowingly. There was no question where all of us were coming from.

“It was hot tonight," Steven said. It was really crazy, though. At first it was like that night at 12 West when we left so early. Creeps everywhere you looked, plaguing you. And you couldn't get into it. The lights were so bright, and the music was weird. Then all of a sudden the music got real hot, they turned off those bright lights, everything went red and blue, and everybody was gorgeous—just big, hot, butch muscle numbers. Suddenly it was a different night. Then, after that real hot set, the music had no beat. Remember, I kept asking you if the music had a beat. I couldn't get into it. And I couldn't tell if Bobby liked it or not, but he kept dancing. He's a little bopper, Bobby. He just bops around. He's hot. You discoed good, babe. It was real good disco. Disss-co."

Steven's conversation is like that for at least a whole day after Saturday night disco. A running analysis of the night before, the night that's really morning, beginning about 1:00 a.m. and lasting until 7:00 or 8:00. Of course, that's not counting the preparation, which begins early Saturday. Getting your disco act together. Finding a member to go with. Eating lots of protein, but early in the day. Resting up. Deciding what drugs to take and what clothes to wear. The clothes are particularly important because, apart from wanting the right look, you have to figure out how much you can comfortably shed or allow to get drenched in sweat without its bringing you down. At least until about 5:30, when nothing could bring you down. At that point the music is always good, there's plenty of room on the dance floor, and only the serious discoers are left. But best of all your body has quit resisting. It has unstoppable momentum. That is the one thing about disco comparable to any other experience. It's like what happens in distance running or swimming. You pass a point where you're beyond tired, beyond pain, beyond even thinking about stopping, thinking only that this could go on forever and you'd love it. It's pure ecstasy. Nothing matters but disco, and nothing—not sex, not food, not sleep, nothing—is better.

The place Steven and I had just come from is called Flamingo. One of the first and most elaborate of the new private dance clubs, Flamingo has been operating for two seasons. That is something of a longevity record for gay discos, which usually last only about six months before a new and better place to dance comes along. There are several reasons for Flamingo's staying power. One is that Michael Fesko, the owner, has a loyal following among the A-list gay crowd. And Fesko shrewdly closes the club every spring, just as the devotees begin to tire of the routine. Most of the Flamingo crowd spend their summer weekends on Fire Island anyway. But more important, membership at Flamingo is by invitation only, which guarantees the clubby atmosphere this crowd loves. The feeling that the club is special, exclusive, the best, is essential to a good disco. Membership costs $45/season; a member pays $5 at the door and his guests pay $7. What that gets you is juice, soda, coffee, fresh fruit, and stale doughnuts, which nobody much cares for. There's no liquor, and nobody cares about that at all. What the price of admission really gets you is the most perfect dancing environment yet, and the ingredients for that are very precarious.

Flamingo is located in a big, anonymous office/loft building on the northeast edge of SoHo, where on a Saturday night there's nobody else around. There's no sign in front, not even a lighted doorway. Going there for the first time feels like an initiation into a secret society. Gay men love the kinds of rituals that make what they do seem secretive, forbidden. (As if the whole world wouldn't realize Flamingo was there from the pulsating of the entire building—in fact, the building houses two discos; the other one is the Gallery—and the endless line of cabs pulling up in front from midnight to 6:00 a.m. New York taxi drivers could tell you a thing or two about forbidden places in New York.) You walk through the uninviting entrance into a completely dark foyer where you can vaguely perceive that there are a few people shuffling around. Then a flashlight lights up and you put your membership card in its beam. You've passed the first test. You go through the doors at the back of the lobby to the stairway. There are two official-looking if a bit stoned attendants there to check your membership number off in a ledger, write down the number of guests with you (you're allowed two), and write out a bill—$19.00 for three. You then wait in line to go upstairs. This is the tensest part of the evening because you can hear the music from upstairs, and they're usually playing one of your favorite songs, so you know you'll miss dancing to it. At the top of the stairs, which are usually crowded with anxious, whispery guys, you pay your money and get your hand stamped with ink that glows under black light. Finally, you're in, but still not ready for the dance floor. There's another line at the coat check, which takes forever, because you have to decide there and then how much to take off, and there's a feverish shuffling of necessities from the pockets of shed clothing to pockets in what you're still wearing: joints of dust, poppers, inhaler, downs, cigarettes, matches, coke, coke spoon, ethyl chloride (if you're a rag queen). If you're smart, you do all of this at home, but that means making the difficult decisions before you've got the feel of the place. The next problem is getting into it, but that's not usually severe. Sometimes when you arrive late the dance floor is so crowded that it's difficult to penetrate, and the energy level is already so high that it's alienating. There are people acting really wild, and ecstatic, and completely out of

The text ends there—at the bottom of a typewritten page, but not quite at the end of a line, so I don't think there's a page missing; I think I just stopped.

Douglas Crimp was an art historian, activist and Fanny Knapp Allen Professor of Art History and Professor of Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. His research centred around postmodern theories of art, institutional critique, and queer theory. He is the author of AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (1988), On the Museum’s Ruins (1993), Melancholia and Moralism – Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (2002), and Before Pictures (2016).

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