This is the second installment in HuffPost Gay Voices Associate Editor James Nichols' ongoing series "After Dark: NYC Nightlife Today And Days Past" that examines the state of New York nightlife in the modern day, as well as the development and production of nightlife over the past several decades. Each featured individual in this series currently serves as a prominent person in the New York nightlife community or has made important contributions in the past that have sustained long-lasting impacts.
HuffPost Gay Voices believes that it is important and valuable to elevate the work, both today and in the past, of those engaged in the New York nightlife community, especially in an age where queer history seems to be increasingly forgotten. Nightlife not only creates spaces for queers and other marginalized groups to be artistically and authentically celebrated, but the work of those involved in nightlife creates and shapes the future of our culture as a whole. Visit Gay Voices regularly to learn not only about individuals currently making an impact in nightlife, but those whose legacy has previously contributed to the ways we understand queerness, art, identity and human experience today.
The Huffington Post: What did you journey to becoming a fixture in the New York nightlife scene entail? How did you get to this point?
Ryan Burke: My journey began in Los Angeles. I started dressing up to go to L.A. parties Mr. Black, Rhonda and Mustache Mondays with my friends. After a couple of years of this I started hosting "Mr. Black" with my boyfriend at the time, Oscar Ambrosio, who did looks with me multiple nights a week. We were just doing it for fun and I started photographing us and our friends as a way of documenting our lives. When I moved to New York almost two years ago I intended to leave nightlife behind and focus solely on photography, but once here I realized that all the people I knew through Facebook were involved in nightlife or went out pretty often. I saw it as a way to network and make new friends and connections. I began going out to On Top, Wolf Party, Vandam and other parties and I continued to document my looks. I was consistently out and started to get to know many of the people in the scene.
I met designer Domonique Echeverria at "Vandam" one night and we hit it off so I started visiting her and getting closer to her. By the next summer when "On Top" was starting again she suggested I become a host for opening night. Susanne Bartsch hired me and I put my most elaborate look yet together for the opening night. I created a headpiece out of pearls and feathers and my roommate, La Rosa, made a custom gown for me. Domonique and I moved in together soon after and I continued to host off and on the rest of the summer and brought looks inspired by Dovima’s aesthetic -- long gowns, big hats or headpieces and an air of elegance. I wore several gowns created by Domonique and shot her looks as well, which started to establish us as a creative team. Since the summer I've continued to be a consistent part of nightlife despite the fact that I don’t typically host. I go to a lot of Susanne’s events and Domonique hosts many of them as well.
What kind of work do you tend to produce? How would you say nightlife influences or informs your art?
I still consider myself a photographer first. I find inspiration in everything but usually it is the abstract nature of things that inspires me. I don’t really care for glasses even though my eyesight isn’t great so I see the world in a kind of soft blur of color. Anything can become a reference for a look and I just build off of small and abstract shapes.
Nightlife is a huge influence on me and the art I produce. The whole idea that you can change your appearance and become something else was demonstrated to me by the nightlife community, who also encouraged my own exploration of ideas. Nightlife has motivated and supported my development. The people I’ve met have inspired me and many have influenced and changed my perspective of the world, gender identity and personal style. I hope to inspire and motivate others by what I do in the same way. But what I encourage isn’t becoming a nightlife socialite -- it’s becoming a person who is free to express themselves in whatever way makes them feel the most amazing and comfortable. It doesn’t have to be restricted to just clubs, but clubs are a wonderful place to start and be inspired.
Nightlife has historically been a place for queers and other marginalized groups to subversively create art and build community. As queer identity becomes increasingly mainstreamed, what role do you see nightlife playing in the future of the queer community?
Nightlife has certainly evolved from the days of Stonewall when queer culture was not accepted. Gay people used to have to be very smart and clever in order to survive. Expressing yourself was not easy. Just being yourself was not easy. These days I see gay people becoming stupid on purpose and obsessed with pop culture and there are more and more clubs catering to this sort of crowd. Even drag is becoming mainstream -- every other gay person does drag and posts videos of themselves lip-syncing on Instagram. I see nightlife becoming less about underground art and music and more about commercialism. A lot of artists have pulled out of the scene entirely and many are less present than they used to be. While there are still talented drag queens, club personalities and DJs out there, it is becoming a needle in a haystack situation. Many artists I know, myself included, see nightlife as a way to get noticed at first but not a place to stay for long.
How do you see what is happening now in New York nightlife as building on a historical legacy of artists, performers, musicians and personalities over the past decades?
Historically, the New York nightlife scene has been a stepping stone for many well-known artists in a variety of mediums. While the cost of living and increase in commercialism is making it harder for artists to survive and thrive in this city, I still see an artistic community full of very talented people. I think we are on an upswing right now and I see more and more of a collaboration between artists across the city -- and I see many of them come in and out of nightlife.
The one major difference between current nightlife and that of decades past is the crackdown on excessive drug use and increase on security and restrictions. While this does create a safer environment to party in it also makes it less of a party atmosphere. People like to go out to get a release from everyday life -- and in New York this is especially necessary. I personally have never been much of a drug user but I don’t care for the presence of security and people watching your every move. This controlled environment is less inviting and many people don’t get out and express themselves the way that they used to. Again, the other deterring factor, of course, is the cost of living. Many people I know live in Brooklyn or Queens now and the commute into the city can be difficult, especially in the winter. That said, there are and always will be those who do it because it’s part of their nature. These are the people I relate to and am encouraged and inspired by.
What is the most important thing you see coming out of the way nightlife has shifted and developed into what it is today?
I see driven artists banding together and creating work outside of nightlife. They go out, have some fun, meet people, but work really hard in the meantime to develop their careers because they know that nightlife isn’t lucrative. Some performers, hosts and promoters can support themselves with nightlife but most of us can’t afford to put together looks for fun or even for the small amount we get paid. We do it because we really love it -- but it’s not easy these days.
During his feature, which ran earlier this series, original Club Kid Michael Alig told HuffPost: "It seems like nightlife hasn’t really evolved in the past 15 years. I have a whole theory about that. My theory is that we are witnessing the end of our Western cultural dominance in the world and that we’ve gone as far as we can with our Western lifestyle as far as decadence, fashion, style, stuff like that. We’ve done every kind of fashion imaginable from miniskirts to maxi skirts, from peg leg pants to bell-bottoms, from black lipstick to glossy lipstick --everywhere in-between. The only things we can do right now are kind of different variations of the same model and we’ve even done that already. " -- How do you respond to this? Do you agree with him?
I’m no expert on the history and development of nightlife so I can only offer my observation from my own experience. Michael is right in that we have explored every aspect of Western cultural dominance in the world -- but I don’t see that as an end to innovative ideas. Everyone has their own reason for dressing up and being part of it. I do it because it’s an innate part of me as a person. I’ve loved dressing up my entire life. Even when I started dressing up to go out, I did it before seeing "Party Monster" or knowing what Club Kids are. Because of this, I don’t draw upon their aesthetic very much. What I do has more of an organic feel to it and I draw my ideas from nature and abstraction.
My creative partner and friend Domonique is a designer and is part of nightlife as a way of exposing others to her designs and fashion ideas. She loves to combine elements from several cultures and eras to create looks that are both familiar and innovative at the same time. While nightlife has always been about freedom of expression and a release from the mundane, I feel that it has evolved in a sense that… it’s not about shocking people or being political, it’s about creating an environment where artists are free to express their ideas, perform, design, entertain and collaborate with each other. There is plenty of room for new ideas, as well as reinterpretation of what’s been done in new ways.
Michael Alig talked a bit about "subverting the establishment" and nightlife in political terms throughout his interview. Nightlife, for you, has never been about being political?
Nightlife, for me, has never been political. I don’t believe that when Club Kids are dressing up and doing drugs it's about anything other than having fun. It’s just a party. For me, it’s a way of expressing my aesthetic and experimenting with the many ways that I can alter my appearance. Granted, it is definitely easier now than it was a few decades ago. People are more open-minded and that is partly a result of being exposed to this kind of self-expression.
I have been around a lot of club personalities in LA and New York by this point and I would have to say that very few -- if any -- are doing what they do to subvert the establishment or be political. We all support equality and freedom of expression, of course, and nobody wants to be controlled and monitored by the government, but I find that the majority of club personalities do what they do simply because they love it. They love showing off their ideas, their fashion, their makeup, their music, their outrageous personalities and being around people who appreciate them and understand where they are coming from. I don’t believe that nightlife has the potential to have much of an impact on politics. I think it is more about creating a breeding ground for artistic minds and giving them a group of like-minded peers that they can network and work with if they choose to do so. Otherwise, it’s just a way to escape and have fun.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on a big gallery show in Chelsea on the 26th of June which Susanne Bartsch is putting together. The event is called "bARTsch" and is two doors down from the Chelsea Hotel. I will have three new series of self-portraits which have never been seen and aren’t nightlife-related. There will also be a performance piece with choreographer Olga Dobrowolska with an interactive gown designed by Domonique Echeverria. I’m also working on my looks with Domonique for the Life Ball in Vienna. We will be walking the red carpet and closing the ceremony with David LaChapelle and Carmen Carrera. I’m working on an editorial for a spanish magazine Dromenon, two editorials for Revelation magazine, two personal editorials which I will shop around to different magazines and many other smaller projects. My hope is to produce as much work as possible this year so that I can find an agent.
What do you see as the future of nightlife in New York City?
Nightlife seems to be heading in a direction where groups are mixing with each other. I see more clubs with a mix of gay, straight, Club Kids, drag queens, race, class, age, etc. There will always be clubs geared toward a particular crowd, but even those always have at least a few outliers who wouldn’t normally be associated with that particular scene. This allows for better exposure to all types of people -- which is a wonderful thing. As far as Club Kid nightlife goes, I think it will always exist but it won’t be so exclusive or underground. People dress up just because it happens to be their personal style -- not because they are going to a particular type of party and only seeing people just like them.
For more from Ryan Burke head here to visit the artist's website. Missed the previous installments in this series? Check out the slideshow below.
"The whole point of the Club Kids was, I thought, to subvert the establishment. But it’s actually impossible to subvert the establishment because once you reach a certain point you become the establishment. Then, by definition, you haven’t subverted it –- it’s just assimilated you. It’s impossible to subvert the establishment... In 1995 things had become so utterly decadent -– it really was 'Mad Max' almost. Walking through a luxurious nightclub like Tunnel that was decked out to the nines and everybody beautiful, young and high on drugs at 8:00 a.m. -- literally stepping over people laying on the floor and ignoring them like it’s the most normal thing. I can’t think of many things that are more decadent than that. But I really did think, 'It really can’t go any further than this. Further would be death.' And it really was for a lot of people." --Michael Alig, The Original Club Kid
"Nightlife is a huge influence on me and the art I produce. The whole idea that you can change your appearance and become something else was demonstrated to me by the nightlife community, who also encouraged my own exploration of ideas. Nightlife has motivated and supported my development. The people I’ve met have inspired me and many have influenced and changed my perspective of the world, gender identity and personal style. I hope to inspire and motivate others by what I do in the same way." --Ryan Burke, Artist and Nightlife Personality
"Patti Smith once said in an interview that there are always these pockets of time where everything sparkles, and things are done because people believe in something... My time as a punk kid, and as one of the Club Kids, is elemental. It informs all of my work as an artist. The commitment to integrity and authenticity that stems from street and scene culture is reflected in the formal qualities of my artwork. It can be seen in the materials, and the objects feel occupied. There is a sense that life has been experienced within the work, fueled by personal narrative. When I compare pictures of myself, as a Club Kid, to my current artwork and jewelry, there does seem to be a lot of continuity. The cycling, the concept of life as one master work, permeates." --Walt Cassidy AKA Waltpaper, Artist And Former Club Kid
"The worlds and the outfits and the scenes we create are primarily elaborate escape routes from a reality that we didn't create and most of us want less and less to deal with... so in time we build our own reality. In this type of expression there is also a subconscious push for truth and evolution. A lot of times it's hard to deduce men from women in a nightclub. And that's a wonderful thing because we are heading into a time in which we'll depart further from gender roles, which also gives way to compassion and acceptance. It's a microcosm that I'm happy to be part of." -Muffinhead, Artist and Nightlife Personality
"Queer nightlife has been an ongoing cultural hotbed for decades, if not centuries, if not from when time began and a small group of outsiders, queers, artists, and madmen took a corner of a cave for themselves and "carried on" as we used to say in the 60's to the 80's... What is called queer history is really just a part of countercultural struggle that was not striated by sexual orientation. That was a '70s concept to divide people up into separate groups. Queer History is a history of Bohemia -- it is a history of resistance to mediocrity, injustice and assimilation." --Penny Arcade, Artist and Nightlife Personality
"I see a lot what is happening today in nightlife as a representation of the past. I find a lot of work in the museums from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s being reflected into today's kids -- though I am not sure if they are aware of it or not. It seems pop culture has slowly infested the queer waters and the only music performed to is Top 100. I love that music myself, but I go out into the nightlife for the second-better-life. The mirrored reflection of pop-culture. The perverted royal finger to what is normative. Now you have to search within the nooks and crannies to find anyone brave enough to be honestly queer." --Acid Betty, Artist and Nightlife Personality
"I would want the kids to know that even though we assume things must have been horrible for gays in the past, that’s not 100 percent the case. When it came to nightlife in the 70s, for example, to me it was the peak of gay nightlife. It was a fabulous time to be gay in New York City. Sure, things like "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" or gay marriage weren’t on the table -- they weren’t even conceptually thought of as ideas yet. But beyond that if you were fairly affluent and doing well, you had a hell of a time being a gay New Yorker. The clubs, the bars, the opportunities were enormous and it was just a wonderful celebratory post-Stonewall time of exploring different freedoms." --Michael Musto, Cultural Critic and Nightlife Personality
"[The club] is like going to an art gallery/community center/wreck room... that’s what keeps nightlife alive, in my opinion. All of these different tribes of people just coming together like a community center or a wreck room at these places that are only open at night, that you have to sacrifice your next day for or your health even sometimes. But it makes it better because everyone wants to be appreciated, everyone wants to be loved and nightlife is the shit with no make-up. It’s like a founding father of art. Like that club Area way back in the day and how they did all of those installations. Studio 54 still rings a bell, the Sound Factory is still making noise. These places they don’t go unnoticed." --Leo Gugu, Stylist and Nightlife Personality
"Over the course of just several years, drag transformed from an underground art form into a mainstream phenomenon. In the mid ‘80s, drag was thriving in the East Village, including the annual outdoor festival Wigstock. Then drag expanded to the entire nightlife scene; all of the clubs were clamoring for drag queen hostesses, go-go dancers, door people, etc. When RuPaul hit it big in 1992 with her song 'Supermodel,' it triggered an incredible amount of pop culture attention for the entire downtown drag scene. Every magazine and television talk show was heralding this new “trend,” and there were a zillion drag-themed music videos, movies, television shows and fashion shoots. It was the first time that drag really broke through to the mainstream. Out of that era came the club kids, 'Paris is Burning,' RuPaul, Susanne Bartsh, Amanda Lepore, Leigh Bowery -- all of these things and people that are still iconic on today’s nightlife." --Linda Simpson, Drag Queen Celebrity and Nightlife Personality
"I have a theory that there are always certain types of people in nightlife. If you look at nightlife now, nightlife ten years ago and nightlife twenty years ago you always see these categories of people... I like to think that whomever had the first party in New York invited all the people that were the pure raw forms of these different styles of people and everyone has been trying to recreate that fabulous party since then.. The beauty is looking at how the “glam queen” was glam in the '80s and what it means to be a glam queen now. The various genres of queens all find a way to relate to the current culture they live in and respond to that in some way." --William Noguchi, Artist and Nightlife Personality
"The very first time we ever saw RuPaul he was wheatpasting pictures of himself all over Atlanta that said 'RuPaul Is Everything.' What, at the time, seemed a brassy hyperbole has proven to be prescient. Because today we are all Everything. We are all brands. And not just artists and celebrities -- all of us. That original punk promise of Manhattan Cable is being made good on: You can have your own TV channel on YouTube. Yes, Kodak has gone bankrupt but without a doubt this is a golden age of photography. Just look at people's Instagram accounts. This is the golden age of content." --Randy Barbato & Fenton Bailey, AKA The Fabulous Pop Tarts and World of Wonder Founders
"I think the truly innovative people that I'm seeing are playing around with gender and sexuality. I think that's what our generation has to offer -- the idea of acceptance and blurred lines of gender. It's causing discussion, debate, new laws to be made and it's causing more art. THAT is the movement that's happening and I'm so glad that The Huffington Post is seeing it. It's groundbreaking and I'm grateful that you're not afraid and I'm grateful that you are present for the incredible change I hope to see. The world is changing and I hope that the bigots jump on this evolution because you're going to get left behind." --Domonique Echeverria, Fashion Designer and Nightlife Personality
"I think NYC nightlife is in good hands at the moment. It's a different time. We can't expect everything to be like it was yesterday. Yesterday is gone! Tomorrow is waiting for all of the young new artists to take hold of and create something new and wonderful so that we all can continue to grow and experience art, music and an exciting nightlife scene that will hopefully once again make NYC the center of the universe. NYC nightlife is here to stay. It can sometimes go up and down like a roller coaster but it will always keep right on a rolling. Long may it reign!" --Jayne County, Transgender Musician and Nightlife Icon
"There's a movement amongst nightlife "personalities" to identify as artists. We approach our nightlife personalities as living art, and often have conversations on how to expand what we do in the club to a gallery setting. For many of us there are aspects of our work that just aren't for the club -- that's why there's the push to blur the lines between art and nightlife. To take the emphasis off the booze and sex and put the artists and personalities at the forefront -- to create happenings. Moving the work into a gallery setting allows me to present work that does not always fit into a club setting. There are aspects of my work, such as the live collage/painting performances, that require a more focused environment to experience the work in it's entirety. A gallery gives us, as artists, more control over the details and participation with the audience. It the next step in the development of the work as a whole." --one-half NelSon, Artist And Nightlife Personality
"We live in an age where people are becoming increasingly detached from social interaction. No matter how loud or messy, nightlife spaces are some of the few places left where conversations happen. People can put a face to different viewpoints and lifestyles. With the ever-increasing number of queer subsets standing up to be counted, it is essential that we all know what's going on within our own community. The queer community coming together for any reason is important and, unfortunately, very rare. Nightlife spaces are a sort of neutral ground for communication to take place -- even if that communication is through a haze of drugs and alcohol, muffled by thumping base." -Erickatoure Aviance, Artist and Nightlife Personality
"Look at your history and you’ll learn more about who you are inside. Then look inside yourself and ask yourself who you really are. Are you the boy that really wants to go to bottle service clubs? Or do you have more to offer? And a lot of people learn these things as they go along and I think it’s important to realize we are much more powerful than we think we are. We are selling ourselves short by fitting into what society wants us to be. It’s great that you have marriage -– but what could you really be? We are the shamans of society. We’re here to show them you don’t have to go by the conditioned way of living. We’re here to show them you can live your life in a very authentic way. That’s what I think gay people are here for. And of course, to enjoy sex as well. Why not? [laughs]" -Kenny Kenny, Visual Poet and Nightlife Icon
"The most important thing coming out of nightlife today is that it’s still coming out. With all the dramatic changes politically and financially over the last 30+ years, the legacy of New York nightlife still exists. And even though our parties are often held in some of the most elitist “bottle service” clubs, for one night a week the door opens and you don’t get in because you are rich, famous or work in PR -- you get in because you’re a radical weirdo dressed to the tens, or friends with someone who is. Yes, it has changed, but we’re all here together committed to keeping New York weird." --Daughters of Devotion, Artists and Nightlife Personalities