In recent years there has been a nostalgic, mainstream fascination with clubbing, partying and rave culture, as seen in institutional galleries, glossy coffee-table books and BBC documentaries. The transformative, communal aspects of nightlife that cultural industries have been celebrating, and the usually independent spaces that house them, however, are growing scarce. On one side, economic and social forces have reduced ‘going out’ in many UK cities to a standardised, corporate experience. On the other, the independent venues and DIY collectives catering to underground scenes and marginalised communities, already threatened by complex licensing, strict authorities and redevelopment, have been pummelled further by coronavirus restrictions and cuts to the arts.
In this context, The Time We Call Our Own at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool (VR version available) is especially poignant. Taking nightlife as the common thread, the exhibition brings together six photography projects spanning four decades around the globe, addressing ‘individual and shared identity in specific times and places’, according to curator Adam Murray. Such a range of perspectives and approaches offers an alternative to recent narratives around nightlife, which tend to mythologise singular cultural moments – most notably the rave scene of the late 1980s–90s. Instead, the projects within The Time We Call Our Own uncover the spontaneity and endurance of nightlife worldwide and across time, the resistant communities that forge and are forged by it, and a multiplicity of joyous moments. This gets to the heart of nightlife’s importance – and why it needs protecting.
Approaching the installation of Oliver Sieber’s ‘Imaginary Club’ (2008–12) is reminiscent of navigating a tightly packed venue of strangers. Set on a slightly raised (yet, accessible) platform in the gallery’s first room – which raises important questions about the inaccessibility of clubs more generally – darkened walls teem with rows of precise portraits encircling the viewer, punctuated by atmospheric cityscapes. Sieber photographed young people and their environments in Japan, Europe and the US; their elaborate clothes, makeup and hairstyles associated with a variety of subcultures from punk, skinhead to goth. What these diverse subjects share, however, is a close relationship to the photographer and a confident gaze. Sieber does not see the night as a negation of the day, but a part of it: exploring the ‘affiliations, identities and symbols’ of those at odds with the conventions of the visible world, and the physical spaces that allow them to find each other.
On the opposite side of the room, the viewer is immersed in Latin American cultures through Mirjam Wirz’s ‘Sonidero City’ (2013–ongoing), a tribute to the Cumbia DJs – sonideros – of Latin America. This project saw the Swiss photographer tracing the paths of Mexico and Colombia’s DIY sound system cultures, researching their significance to streets, courtyards and living rooms. Video clips looping on a large screen add a pulsating current to the gallery’s ground floor, revealing the interwoven nature of Cumbia music and dance to these countries, vital to all ages and encompassing entire neighbourhoods. A selection of Wirz’s photographs displayed on the opposite wall portray an energetic mix of DJs, MCs, technicians, families and communities captured in various indoor and outdoor settings. The power of music technology is also afforded prominence; both smaller setups and towering stacks of loudspeakers are pictured, their mightiness reiterated in giant reproductions outside the gallery.
Located in Open Eye Gallery’s second room are three projects focusing on European identities and movements. Two of these focus on eastern Europe in flux: Andrew Miksys’ ‘Disko’ (2000–2010) and Tobias Zielony’s ‘Maskirovka’ (2016–17). ‘Disko’ explores Lithuanian village discos of the 2000s – a time of vast economic and social change in which the country transitioned from being a former Soviet republic to an EU member state. ‘The future was filled with possibility, but the past weighed heavily on everything. The Friday or Saturday night disco was one of the few places in most villages where people could go to feel modern and get a little crazy’, Miksys says. His candid photos demonstrate this cultural break; the disko kids are unglamorous, gaunt and clothed in jeans; history casts a heavy shadow over them, evidenced by the dilapidated soviet buildings they party in. Yet, in finding new uses for these dated settings, Miksys’ subjects are transforming them and attempting to build a future; one filled with freedom and new experiences, in which they dance, embrace and kiss.
Captured a decade later, Zielony’s project explores the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. The photographer spent two years documenting Kyiv’s underground queer and techno scene; his photos painterly and softly lit, yet intense. Taken in clubs and around the city, in the early morning and late at night, they illuminate Ukraine’s multifaceted reality. On one hand is a country in crisis, torn apart by opposition, but on the other is a progressive generation defying societal and sexual norms; a secret world of peaceful resistance, love and solidarity. The title of the project, Maskirovka, signifies the ‘fragile and treacherous situation in which the protagonists live and act’, according to Zielony, referring both to undercover Russian soldiers, and the masks used by protesters to hide their identities and protect themselves from tear gas.
Focusing on the opposite side of Europe, Dustin Thierry’s ‘Opulence’ (2018–ongoing) is a ‘living archive’ capturing the energy of the Netherlands’ Black Caribbean diaspora – particularly its LGBTQI+ communities – and seeking to address the country’s racial prejudice, as well as homophobia within Caribbean culture. Thierry’s black and white photos are luxurious and deeply personal; group shots and crowded ball venues demonstrate the significance of family structures and safe spaces, and are juxtaposed with detailed, almost ‘fashion’ portraits. Visible from a window into the gallery is a large reproduction of Thierry’s spell-binding photograph ‘Thaynah Vineyard at the “We Are The Future – And The Future Is Fluid” Ball’. The composition has a religious quality – Thaynah is serene, wearing a sculptural halo-like headpiece and adorned in opalescent body-paint that could be mistaken for ceremonial jewels.
Situated on the first floor of the gallery, Amelia Lonsdale’s project ‘Miles and Others’ Smiles’ (1978 – 1983) also investigates archiving and cultural memory, as well as music culture and how it shapes lives beyond venues. The Yorkshire-based photographer has compiled a series of photographs taken in the 1980s by her mother, Yvonne, and Yvonne’s then-boyfriend, Dennis. Committed to New Romantic music and style, Yvonne and Dennis photographed each other in theatrical poses and flamboyant clothes while getting ready to go out. A lone chair in front of a projected slideshow of photos results in a cinematic ambience, where the viewer can lose themselves in the world of 1980s DIY fashion: wide-brimmed hats, frills, satin, silk and velvet. Meanwhile, a selection of images in a small display case raises questions about who we dress for and how this has changed with social media. These prints were Yvonne and Dennis’ personal mementos, and the couple, in Amelia’s words, ‘weren’t seeking approval from anyone but themselves’.
The world remains unstable and there is no clear remedy to the crisis that nightlife faces. But what these wide-ranging projects emphasise is nightlife’s innate importance, genuineness and tenacity, the individual and shared identities that form and are formed by it and that thrive despite – or are ignited by – social upheaval. While nostalgia leads nowhere, this exhibition invites viewers to look forward. And Open Eye Gallery is the perfect place to host it: a small, regional gallery dedicated to socially engaged photography and collaboration between photographers and communities.
The Time We Call Our Own is displayed at Open Eye Gallery from 3 September – 23 October 2020.
Bethany Holmes is a writer and editor from Merseyside, currently based in London.
This article is supported by Open Eye Gallery.