BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 08 DEC 20

Stories We Missed in 2020: Your Disco Needs You

With the industry having been continuously overlooked by the UK government’s COVID-19 response, frieze charts a disastrous year for nightlife

BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 08 DEC 20

‘Your Disco Needs You’ is part of a series of essays on the stories we missed in 2020. Look out for more of our end of year coverage to follow. 

This past Saturday, a usually nocturnal contingent convened in the daylight via live stream to pick through the debris of 2020. The Inferno Summit, hosted by ICA, London, and organized by the artist, DJ and club promoter Lewis G. Burton, brought together 18 nightlife stalwarts – including US rapper Mykki Blanco, artists Wu Tsang and Boychild, and David Hoyle, ‘the world’s greatest living performer’ (according to Justin Vivian Bond) – to share stories of solidarity and scheme about future revival plans at the end of a disastrous year for artists, pubs, clubs and promotors alike.

Lewis Burton Roxy Lee
Lewis G. Burton by Roxy Lee, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and Inferno, London 

Despite being a multi-billion pound industry, nightlife has been repeatedly overlooked by the UK government's coronavirus response. Many venues haven’t been able to open since March and, even though they have been eligible for the furlough scheme, most have high fixed costs that still need to be paid. In October, after the success of the #LetUsDance petition, the government announced that clubs and festivals would be able to apply for grants from a £250 million Cultural Recovery Fund. Competing for grants with organizations including museums and theatres has meant support for nightlife has skewed heavily to big names, such as Ministry of Sound and Boiler Room, while other places have been deemed less culturally valuable. The intimate nature of clubbing means that these places will be last to open their hallowed doors; already under pressure from rising rents and neighbourhood gentrification, many independent, live music and LGBT+ venues won’t survive.

The David and Goliath-like task of protecting endangered spaces from commercial fuckery and governmental indifference isn’t a new topic on the cultural agenda. According to London’s nightlife czar, Amy Lamé, in a recent interview with Jodie Harsh on her podcast, ‘Life of the Party’: ‘we’ve lost 61% of our LGBT+ venues in London in the space of a decade’. That such a daftly titled position exists is recognition from City Hall that London’s nightlife needed a champion and guardian. 

Rowdy SS, BALANCE, 2020, peformance documentation. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Anne Tetzlaff
Rowdy SS, BALANCE, 2020, peformance documentation. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Anne Tetzlaff

A conversation titled ‘A Creatives’ Guide to Surviving the Pandemic’ opened the Summit with a disclaimer from the chair, Shane ‘Shay Shay’ Konno, that the speakers would be discussing mental health – a stark reminder that the lockdown has isolated people from their support networks, in some cases emphasizing the role of digital platforms as a way to remain close. As photographer Bernice Mulenga frankly put it: ‘I’ve realized that I need to see people.’ 

The importance of social unity for marginalized communities is a sentiment echoed by speakers across the Summit. Performer and choreographer Rowdy SS shares one of my main concerns, telling me via email: ‘I worry that young people may lose out on creating spaces to come together to build foundational relationships. With all club spaces closed, the transformative experience that community and nightlife offer has been irreversibly changed for the young queer community.’ Burton agrees, adding: ‘I can't imagine what it must feel like to have moved to a big city to study and be locked up in student halls with strangers.’ 

Courtesy: Roxy Lee and Inferno, London
Courtesy: Roxy Lee and Inferno, London 

The pandemic – with its loneliness, fragmentation and financial anxiety – has worsened many existing ills. In the world of the night, these issues operate on a small scale (how to ensure the mental welfare of your friendship group) and a big one (how to protect your favourite clubs from financial collapse). So, what can people outside of the night-time ecosystem do to help? For Burton, the long-term solution is abundantly clear: ‘don’t vote Conservative.’ In the short-term, however, they say: ‘buy the merch, donate to the fundraisers and share the content’. (In line with this advice, there is a link to a list of active campaigns here.)

I should say that the story in the UK isn’t unique: This year, we’ve covered Between Bridges, a poster campaign founded by Wolfgang Tillmans to raise funds for New York nightclubs, and how Berghain (I don’t want to hear about your night there, honestly) transformed into a socially distanced exhibition space during Berlin Art Week. Also, in April, Mimi Chu and Cami Rincon tuned in, through sub-par bedroom speakers, to four online clubs – Queer House Party, Cloud 9, Sunday Club and Gal Pal – concluding that ‘queer joy persists’. 

Courtesy: Roxy Lee and Inferno, London
Courtesy: Roxy Lee and Inferno, London 

I’m embarrassingly reminded of Kylie Minogue’s ‘Your Disco Needs You’ (2000): if you (lockdown restrictions permitting, of course) don’t buy event tickets and beer or support online campaigns, then bars and clubs from New York’s Julius’ to Inferno itself will cease to exist. Parties nurture artists, designers and collectives; as Wu Tsang says: ‘The reason I am an artist is because of nightlife – it lives inside of everything I do because it’s really shaped me.’  

I’ll leave you with this: In the 1970s, clubs like Kensington’s legendary Sombrero would serve tokenistic ‘meals’ such as tinned Spam with chopped, pickled red cabbage to circumvent tight licensing laws, which specified that venues could only serve alcohol until late if customers ate on the premises. A few nights ago, I pushed a £1 ready meal around the plastic container with a fork in an unnamed London pub thinking about how it too, in 2020, was my alibi for being there. When I spoke to DJ and filmmaker Jeffrey Hinton back in January neither of us could have known what this year would bring. But I hope that there will be a time in the not too distant future when we’ll be able to once again follow his mantra: ‘When in doubt, go out.’

The Inferno Summit is available to watch for 30 days via the ICA website. 

Main image: Printworks, London, as seen from the stage, October, 2020. Courtesy: Getty Images; photographer: Peter Summers

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and frieze assistant editor based in London, UK.