May 2012: Interview with VICE: Discotecture

Still from Discotecture, image courtesy of VIC


"Sitting around in bars, smoking cigarettes. That's the history of art."
       -Fran Lebowitz

VICE recently launched an online video series called 'Discotecture'. The concept: five young, hip designers create a 'nightclub of the future' on Heineken's dime. The results are actually really interesting. To set the stage for this future-club, director Anthony Mathile delved into the history of New York's nightlife. David Byrne, Peter Gatien, Kenny Scharf, and Michael Musto, among others, talk about Mudd Club, Stuido 54, Area, Palladium—nexuses of the city's creative ferment in the 70s and 80s. Cliches of tortured, isolated genius notwithstanding, the history of art, as Lebowitz notes, is social. Those of an artistic temperament have tended towards dinner and dance parties, social slow-cookers where ideas steep in music, booze and uninhibited conversation until they are juicy and delicious. Andy Warhol at Palladium, Wolfgang Tillmans at Berghain, Adreas Gursky at Cocoon—these are all obvious examples of relationships between well-known artists and iconic clubs. And with increasing frequency, music that would traditionally have been considered too clubby—recreational, even—has been making its way through the Pantone-white gates of contemporary galleries. Take the recent Kraftwerk series at MoMA, or last summer's juxtaposition of Anish Kapoor's Leviathan (2011) and Richie Hawtin, at Paris's Grand Palais. Discotecture doesn't get into these specific contemporary intersections, but the territory it covers draws attention to them and puts them in some historical context. And then, of course, there's relational aesthetics...

Whitehot fired a few questions off to Anthony, on political dancing, corporate sponsorship, and the social impact of design.
WM: When I first had a look at the trailer I thought this was going to be another reality design challenge, but it's as much a mini-documentary about the history of nightlife in New York, and the role it played in the city's artistic culture . Why did you take this angle?

Anothony Mathilde: The last thing we need is another reality challenge and when we first talked about the project the broad idea was create a documentary series about design, specifically the disciplines that the young design challengers that were selected for the project were working in: interior, graphic, product, fashion, etc.

As I had no personal history or experience in nightclubs or nightlife I had to start from scratch to figure this thing out and a quick google search for “history of nightlife” lead me to a quote from David Byrne in which he ponders the idea of looking at a cultural history through this lens of nightlife and where people were hanging out, as opposed to through military campaigns and political proclamations.  I thought that was a fascinating point of view in which to frame this documentary: the influence of a society and culture on its nightlife and vice versa.

As I spoke with people it quickly became apparent that design for nightlife couldn’t be accounted for by looking at interior design or graphic design alone.  My working definition became that nightlife design is anything that one can create, control, or manipulate.  It’s as much about the elements and decoration of the room as it is the people in that room and their experience when there.  In this way everything from the way a room flows to the sound and music, the lighting, the temperature, the smell, even a club’s door policy is design.
WM: Discotecture is funded by Heineken. You've framed this as a project that has roots in New York's creative havens of the 70s and 80s—Mudd Club, The Loft etc., and of course, in places like 54 and Palladium that were full on glitz and glamour and which, though they also had deeply creative spirit, were aligned with...let's call it a more financial aesthetic... How do you see corporations working with the arts today?

AM: I personally think there’s a lot more value in a piece of content that has some substance and tells a story than in a 30 second tv commercial, and they probably cost around the same to make. Of course when the corporate interests get in the way of making authentic and honest work then it’s a problem.  But it’s all quite new and no one’s really figured it out yet.

This idea that it’s free is interesting too because it sort of alleviates the whole classist hierarchy that’s inherent in the modern nightclub.  You know if everything is free then it doesn’t really matter how much money you have.  Other factors are much more important at that point, like how you dress, look, act, etc...  The function of the door policy historically was really to encourage people to participate and contribute to the overall social environment—and if they didn’t then they wouldn’t get in.   So perhaps the future of nightlife is all branded and instead of buying a $400 bottle you have to spend the afternoon creating an elaborate costume out of rubber and safety pins.  That room is a hell of a lot more interesting than the room with a bunch of models sitting around some tan dude in leather pants and a bolo.

WM: Along those lines, New York's art and music of the 70s—massively influential for future generations—was made in a bottomed out economy. Disco grew out of marginalized groups, really galvanizing the gay community in particular. There actually was a politics of dancing. Are nightclubs doing anything comparably useful now? As the economy (hypothetically) tanks are they going to be more important? How is design going to help?

AM: The moments in time when the cultural factors converge in such a way as to have that profound impact on the greater society is obviously quite rare. No, I don’t think there is a centralized and direct cultural impact happening from nightlife right now that could compare with the 70’s-80’s in NYC. That said, clubs are still doing what they’ve always done, providing people with an opportunity to escape the constraints of daily life if only for that brief moment and in this way I think nightlife is important.

Design has the potential to inspire people to gather and interact in new and interesting ways.  Historically the club design really influenced the ways that people related to each other in that environment.  The glamour and decadence in the design of Studio 54 almost dictated a certain over the top flamboyance from the culture inhabiting it.

Similarly the design can give people a way to meet new people; little conversation starters in the club, or the entertainment, or whatever.  Before this project I thought this was just designer speak to justify what they do.  I just thought you needed a place where people could get reasonably drunk and they’d figure it out.  After spending quite a bit of time observing I see that you give people something to talk about and they’ll take the cue and start that conversation.  These things do actually work.  So the more interesting the elements are the more interesting that interaction can become.  It’s especially useful for inherently boring people, I’ve found.

WM: What's your take on the difference between an iconic institution and an ephemeral party, location TBA. Where does design fit in either case?

AM: I think it’s just how long a place is around for that makes it an iconic institution. I don’t think that in the history of clubs there’s a single place that was at it’s peak for longer than about 2 years. There were plenty of places that were sort of trading in on their reputations for decades and I think those places are considered institutions.  Where as there are clubs like Area that were much more ephemeral, but had a similar peak period that wouldn’t be considered an institution.

Discotecture can be watched in full online at: