A few weeks ago now, half of esteemed New York party-throwers Mister Saturday Night, Justin Carter, trekked over to East London for one of their semi-regular Sunday bashes at Bethnal Green's Oval Space. Reports suggest that it was the kind of freewheeling celebration of good time communality that's made Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin a force to be (gently) reckoned with when it comes to well thought out, friendly, life-affirming clubbing experiences. Mister Sunday was probably about as much fun as you could have at 5:30 in evening but one thing stopped me going: the rules.
In order to create the kind of atmosphere that immediately sends writers into ecstatic reveries invoking David Mancuso's Loft, or Nicky Siano's Gallery — reveries that stem from the internalized, imagined recollections of scenes that existed when our parents were still feeling their way around the sandpits of their childhood — Carter and Harkin have attached a few stipulations to their parties:
A COUPLE OF RULES FOR OUR DANCEFLOOR:
1. Please don't take photos.
2. Please don't text or make calls or any of that stuff.
You can do all these things off of the dancefloor, but when you're inside the speakers, GET DOWN.
Now, these aren't exactly the most militant commands. It's entirely fair enough to politely ask people from refraining from taking photos of dudes playing records, or from spending eight hours tip-tapping on the cracked screen of a battered two-generations old iPhone. It, theoretically at least, engenders an atmosphere of abandonment and submission to the pure pleasures of the party. Which again, is fair enough, as despite the odd dickhead who'll spend an entire night listlessly scrolling through Instagram on the dancefloor for whatever reason, most of us head to clubs weekend after weekend to dance.
The worry with these kind of requests is that they deny the service user (AKA clubber) the agency with which they're used to when using that service (the club). It's like your mom telling you to wear a coat on a big night out, just to be safe, love. This negation of autonomy, despite coming from a good place, is a tad alienating. Which then makes one think about the personal responsibilities we all have as clubbers to try and make sure we're being as individually beneficial to the greater good as we can be. Which then sends us all into a flurry of internal-investigation.
When I go to the club am I a distraction?
When I go to the club am I an irritation?
When I go to the club am I an annoyance?
When I go to the club do I contribute?
When I go to the club do I make things enjoyable for those around and with me?
When I go to the club do I actively go out of my way to ensure a state of party-equilibirum is achievable?
So why do Mister Sunday's rules, as fair as they are, as justifiable as they are, as reasonable and arguably right as they are, rankle? Is it a kind of terrible, pushed-down, boring, kneejerk reaction to assumed authority? Possibly. Does it reek, ever so slightly, of a kind of regressive puritanism? A bit, yeah. Do I think it's the kind of twee, "let's have a party, maaaaaaan" hippy dippy bullshit that chimes with us on a very surface level because it positions itself as an alternative to the rampant commercialism that's seen clubs transform themselves from liminal spaces of invisibility and potential societal upheaval to branded boxes of unfettered late-capitalist commercialism? Yes. That's it. That's exactly it!
In a recent cover feature with experimentally leaning music monthly The Wire, techno boffin Mark Fell notes that:
"Dance music for me, in the late 1980s and early 90s was this outsider activity…Now forward-wind in time and we're in a situation where house music has been extremely commodified and is basically selling that world of fast cars and designer clothes, etc. And also selling this idea of, let's have fun.."
Fell has a point. The Mister Sunday scheme — and at this juncture it makes sense to note that a tonne of other spaces (Output in Brooklyn, Berghain in Berlin) employ similar rules and that this piece is in no way damning of Mister Saturday Night as a promotion unit, or Carter and Harkin as people — while being good natured and altruistic in intention, is part of the problem. It sells, subtly, the attendees an idea: this is a proper party like the old parties you've read about and know about and if we all pretend it's still the past then everything will be fine. It's a bit of a reach. But a positive reach at that. Fun and phones aren't mutually exclusive. Fun and photography aren't mutually exclusive. Sure, no one really wants to try and dance next to some joker intent on capturing the atmosphere of an evening well spent on a grainy iPad video, or some brainless sponge continually texting, but the occasional SMS, or the odd photo, are relatively harmless to everyone's clubbing experience.
Clubbing has changed—not necessarily always for the better, but the community can only move forward. It can only thrive in the face of closures and setbacks, licensing changes and the eternal stomp of brandification and commodification of experience if we all accept that. As dancers and DJs, promoters and dancers, it's our duty to accept that the kind of idealized notion of the nightclub now only exists in the memories of those who were there, shot-to-pieces in VHS uploads on YouTube, and in the pages of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. There's no doubting that Carter and Harkin are painfully aware of this. After all, their rules wouldn't be necessary if they weren't, but it feels like a backwards step, an attempt to envelope themselves and their audience in a net of pre-internet nostalgia. While it might engender a positive atmosphere on the dancefloor — and you'd wager that there's more dancers going for it on the floor at Mister Sunday than you'd find at your average night out — it's also mildly off-putting. The club should be, could be, can be, is, a place where the pressures of workaday life are traded for potentially limitless pleasure. Let's not stop people exploring themselves in relation to others.
Still, you might catch me on the dancefloor of the next Mister Sunday party texting my mates about it. Subtly, of course. I'm having fun, honestly.