Nao Bustamante Puts Her Own Spin on Nightlife Memorials in “Brown Disco” at OCDChinatown

Installation view of Nao Bustamante’s “Brown Disco” at OCDChinatown (Courtesy OCDChinatown, New York. Photographer Richard McDonough)

All I need is a disco ball. In life and in art. Spotting its sparkling exterior with a cursory glance toward the ceiling at any bar, concert venue, or tchotchke-covered restaurant brings a relieving, comforting sense of home. Similarly, any artwork that includes a mirror ball is immediately a favorite. Just search around this very website and you’ll see I’m not exaggerating with gushing praise of, to name a few, Anna Campbell’s baby disco ball in a high chair, Nature, Phoenix Lindsey-Hall’s porcelain versions in Never Stop Dancing, and Bradley Wester’s shining DISCOurse series. Is my never-ending adoration of the disco ball a critical failing? Maybe. A woefully glaring blind spot? Probably. Will you likely get a good review from me even if you slap a mirror ball on a turd? Most likely. Whatever. I will never waver in my love of disco balls, fluttering around them, all reason and taste caught up in their refracted light, like a moth soaring towards a street lamp.

Naturally, then, when I got wind of Nao Bustamante’s giant inflatable disco ball whirling its way within her current exhibition Brown Disco at OCDChinatown, I was there instantly. Or not quite instantly since I had to put my own dizzying spin on the ball’s rotation and circle around and around, lost, on the second floor of the East Broadway Mall. After passing stall after stall of hip vintage clothing shops staffed by waif-like white Gen Z-ers, I found one with blacked-out windows, starkly contrasting with the harsh fluorescent lights of the aggressively bland mall interior.

Inside, the sound hits before the eye adjusts to the dark—a loud drowsy sonic wave that is as familiar as it is alien. Though certainly less manically eclectic than our endless hours-long Filthy Dreams playlists, this soundtrack is no less of a mad choice—a slowed repetitive karaoke version of Donna Summer’s machinic classic, “I Feel Love,” a song that even rocked David Bowie’s self-confidence, leading him to declare it “the sound of the future.” This spinning song—made even more hypnotic when reduced to a narcotic droning crawl—sets the rhythm of Bustamante’s gargantuan disco ball’s perpetual revolution. And if you feel so inclined, mourning the absence of Donna’s soaring vocals, a live microphone is positioned in a corner of the gallery. It was much too early and I was much too sober to dare tarnish the legacy of Donna with my off-key wails. But, please do so. For me.

With its sheer size, so large that it just barely misses grinding into the floor, the ginormous disco ball centerpiece crowds out any opportunity for a dance floor, leaving viewers to slide and sneak around its edges. Its outsized form adds a feeling of altered perception—either you are shrinking or the disco ball is expanding. This surrealistic vision is further heightened when coupled with the ambient hum of the voiceless yet slightly recognizable “I Feel Love” and the flashes of spotlights bouncing off the orbiting inflatable. There is more than a bit of Alice in Wonderland to Brown Disco, as there is to nightlife in general, which often requires leaping into a darkened rabbit hole to discovery.

Ooooh….falling free, falling free, falling free, falling free…

Installation view of Nao Bustamante’s “Brown Disco” at OCDChinatown (Courtesy OCDChinatown, New York. Photographer Richard McDonough)

The size is not the only peculiarity of Bustamante’s disco ball. Its color is also remarkable. A golden brown replaces the typical reflective silver mirror ball. This gives the orb a different kind of intergalactic quality—more the warm glow of a distant planet than the coolness of a futuristic spaceship. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or academic—either to interpret that the brown color also pays celebratory tribute to the Brown and Black pioneers of not only disco itself but so many aspects of queer nightlife, from house music to ball culture.

It is here that I should cite the press release’s impenetrable quote about brownness from Roy Pérez, which I’ll admit I don’t fully understand. Or maybe dig up a line or two from José Esteban Muñoz about the “brown commons.” Or even better, flip through a well-worn copy of Cruising Utopia, seeking an appropriate passage like a Bible verse. Certainly, the small artwork hung on a closed gate, which depicts a golden disco ball rising over a colorful landscape like a sunrise, just begs for a resurrection of “We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” But, I’m not. If you want a more academic take, read Tavia Nyong’o’s corresponding essay, penned on an embossed black exhibition card that resembles, at once, a party invite and a memorial card, because I’m not going to do it.

Why not? Because the strength of Brown Disco lies in its simplicity. Though the impulse to mimic Muñoz who wrote on Bustamante’s art extensively is strong, her choices in Brown Disco don’t need to be bogged down by theoretical, jargon-laden discussions about nightlife or queerness or brownness or utopia or community solely directed at Performance Studies Ph.D. students. I much prefer Bustmante’s own description of her motivation in Cultured: “I went into OCDChinatown, I looked at the space, and I thought, I want to put a giant disco ball in there.” Who wouldn’t?!

Plus, Brown Disco, like nightlife in general, seems like an exhibition that should be felt rather than overintellectualized. This is true of much of Bustamante’s work—the simple is often the most incisive and effective, from appearing as Rosa the exhibitionist on The Joan Rivers Show as an act of performance art to encouraging white male audience members to take a big chomp from a phallic burrito stuffed into a harness on her crotch while apologizing for colonialism (“I’m male. I’m white. And I’m sorry.”). The latter, a performance called Indigurrito, is just over thirty years old, and yet, viewed today, it still retains its subversive and satirical power, maintaining a humorous bent that is sorely lacking in the woefully self-serious art addressing colonialism found in every major museum’s recent contemporary art survey exhibition.

Brown Disco may not be amusingly transgressive, but it is infectiously joyful. The installation captures the transformative essence of nightlife through basic means with just light, sound, and a disco ball. At best, nightlife is an escape, whether from oppressive dominant culture or more basic, the boredom and drudgery of the everyday (which makes the return to the everyday a hard wake-up call, just like blinking back the painful shock of ugly fluorescent lights at the East Broadway Mall). It also offers a momentary sense of togetherness, of being with others, even if that doesn’t require talking. Brown Disco achieved that too, thanks to OCDChinatown’s lovely gallery worker Paris who, inspired by my hot pink Rock Lobster tote, struck up a conversation with me about The B-52s and Ricky Wilson and subsequently, launched into “Girl From Ipanema Goes To Greenland” in a perfect Kate Pierson-inspired falsetto. The ever-present Summer soundscape also led me to constantly stop our discussion to shout, “WHAT?!” as if we were in a bar or club, screaming over the blaring music.

Ooooh….you and me, you and me, you and me…

Installation view of Nao Bustamante’s “Brown Disco” at OCDChinatown (Courtesy OCDChinatown, New York. Photographer Richard McDonough)

Other than Paris and me (yes, Emily in Paris did come up), the gallery was empty. No crowded dance floor. No jostling and bumping through other bodies. No being slimed by other people’s sweat. This absence also served a purpose as a subtle memorial for the victims of the Pulse and Club Q shootings. To further emphasize its intention as a memorial, the back of the exhibition’s takeaway card includes a list of the names of the victims. Bustamante’s Brown Disco joins a number of other artistic tributes to the losses of these mass shootings. This ranges from the aforementioned 49 lunar disco balls in Phoenix Lindsey-Hall’s Never Stop Dancing to more recently, Joseph Liatela’s sanctification of nightclub patrons in his exhibition Nothing Under Heaven. Several of Liatela’s gold glittering pollen-dusted tiles of his Untitled (For Pulse) Series, which capture the ghostly memory of dancers on black granite, are currently on view in Sara Reisman’s curated group exhibition Two Grains of Wheat at 601Artspace just a few blocks away from East Broadway.

On one hand, the glut of tributes to nightlife made since the Pulse shooting in 2016 certainly reveals just how integral nightlife is for queer people and how devastating these shootings remain to a community that holds these spaces as sacred. Yet, on the other hand, while I like all of these works, how many more tributes to queer nightlife can we take before it feels staid? Repetitive? Over, like a trend that overstayed its welcome? This risk is certainly looming with the avalanche of recently published and forthcoming books dedicated to LGBTQ+ nightlife. Just last week, I received an advanced digital copy of Lucas Hilderbrand’s The Bars Are Ours: Histories and Cultures of Gay Bars in America, 1960 and After. The Duke University Press marketing manager who sent that over helpfully gave me a list of other relevant books: Jeremy Atherton Lin’s unintentionally hilariously written Gay Bar, Greggor Mattson’s Who Needs Gay Bars?: Bar-Hopping through America’s Endangered LGBTQ+ Places, and Amin Ghaziani’s Long Live Queer Nightlife: How the Closing of Gay Bars Sparked a Revolution. I’d also add in McKenzie Wark’s bite-sized yet theoretically dense Raving and probably a stack of other books I’m forgetting. I mean, Jesus Christ. And I’m aware of my own role in this nightlife frenzy as the co-curator of the 2015 Visual AIDS exhibition Party Out Of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980, which is just begging for a revisit and retool given all these new works. Yet, at what point is it too much?

I’m not sure. What I do know, however, is Bustamante, Liatela, and Lindsey-Hall’s short-lived exhibition/memorials are each way more fitting tributes to the victims of these club mass shootings than the city-sanctioned pigeon shit-splattered dull bronze rocks on the Hudson, otherwise known as Anthony Goicolea’s LGBT Memorial. And maybe these temporary memorials are exactly the kind of monuments that should be erected for nightlife anyway. Ephemeral. Transient. Fleeting. Ever-evolving. Impermanent. Just like nightlife spaces and just like us, for that matter. As Donna Summer mesmerizingly repeats, “Heaven knows, heaven knows, heaven knows.”

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