From Dance Moves to a Movement

June 8, 2015

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Image courtesy of NAAFI
Image courtesy of NAAFI

When word got out that N.A.A.F.I, a music label and events project turned underground movement, had been invited to do a year-long residency at the Jumex Museum (simply titled Residency), some people declared it would be the death of N.A.A.F.I, while others thought it would be a threat to the museum and its “culture.” In short, people on both ends of the spectrum were scared. Often, strong gestures threaten the status quo and or push people out of their comfort zones. But to me this is always a good kind of discomfort, and after witnessing this particular one, it even made me want to write about it here, to think through what was going on.

Perhaps it is no coincidence then that one of the umbrella terms that N.A.A.F.I. has borrowed to think of this three-part Residency is “Zones of Disturbance” (from Mariana Botey’s Zonas de disturbio: Espectros del México indígena en la modernidad, which addresses the presence of indigenous arts within European art history—or imaginary— from a postcolonial perspective as precisely such a zone of disturbance). Already, this kind of language, or framework, should let people know that these neo-ravers are not the just “burnouts” who might threaten the “integrity” of a “cultural institution.”

Aside from the party, which was hosted specifically during the afternoon (and not as the usual late-night-into-wee-hours rave-style party) this first part of the Residency also included an informal and juicy round-table conversation with LAO, one of the label’s producers or artists (another blurred boundary here), their first special guest and genre-bender, UNIIQU3, label co-founders Tomás Davó and Alberto Bustamante, and myself as moderator. The ideas we discussed among ourselves and in close dialogue with the participants ranged from issues of power and control in such collaborations between institutions and countercultural agents; to cultural appropriation; a re-evaluation of the term hybrid; and how something that is purely aesthetic can quickly be commodified, versus how something that is physical (such as a community that participates in an event) can transcend easy commodification.

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Image courtesy of NAAFI
Image courtesy of NAAFI

UNIIQU3, articulate beyond her young age, spoke of her experience as a woman in a mostly male-dominated world, and as a woman of color specifically, and how the Jersey Club sound has been appropriated often and not always in positive ways (for instance when, for some strange—and unconsciously?—racist reason, some DJs decided to play this music genre but only while wearing animal masks, whereby the DJ that was supposed to emulate UNIIQU3’s sound was a “friendly gorilla.” Really; seriously).  So, what initially might seem like a simple intervention in a more run-of-the-mill typical museum context (note that the exhibition being shown at the museum at that time was an innocuous Calder show, and that very recently a Hermann Nitsch exhibition had been canceled, with much controversy) then began not only to question the role of the institution in a fresh way, from within the institution, but also made the party-goers question their own roles (did they become conscious participants in a performance? co-creators in a collective art piece?), at the same time as the N.A.A.F.I organizers themselves questioned the issues of periphery, empowerment, and resistance that their parties and music have always been part of. A note on this last part: yes, N.A.A.F.I has been making events or parties for several years but since the beginning, the co-founders, many of whom have backgrounds in careers like architecture, really think of it as the gestation of shared spaces. No coincidence then that N.A.A.F.I, which started as a party, made waves that reached the doors of a consecrated institution such as Jumex Museum, which has defined this as the first in a series of collaborations with “movements that are redefining contemporary culture” (my emphasis, from the museum’s website).

I think that José Esparza, the curator who invited N.A.A.F.I and helped organize this event was a bit worried he might get fired. He shouldn’t be fired, he should be given a raise.  These types of events are what keep large institutions from becoming entirely sclerotic (especially after decisions like cancelling a show, which taint them with the word “censorship”). On the other hand, such an invitation and the fact that the “underground came up for some sun,” as one of the participants described the first dance-party-afternoon, shows not only the self-reflective nature of N.A.A.F.I but also how conscious its participants are of their position, and of what it potentially means to take over such an institution. To some readers in the United States this might sound pretty obvious, and I can think of many such collaborations between a large museum and a small independent space—some of my favorites being when Machine Project in Los Angeles got invited to orchestrate ten hours of all kinds of things at LACMA, occupied the Walker Art Center for a few weeks, or did a full year of programming at the Hammer Museum (including a Dream-in and a Fungi Fest). In Mexico City small or independent or underground (or all of the above) spaces, initiatives, collectives or even movements often talk to each other and are seldom invited into the more formal (often State-run) institutions, with the few-and-far-between exceptions of the university museums. In any case such a radical crossover hadn’t happened in a while to my knowledge. It was radical not just from the institution’s point of view—actually,  from that point of view it was necessary—but rather also from the standpoint of the N.A.A.F.I audience, many of whom had never set foot in a museum, many of whom probably never leave their homes before sundown, many of whom consider themselves abjected bodies from the norms imposed by society (and therefore by an institution of society such as a museum) or who are from social milieux that wouldn’t even use the word “milieu” when referring to themselves because they might get punched in the face, or worse. It was also probably radical for the average middle-class (“straight”) family visiting the museum who encountered people dressed weirdly, half-dressed, trans, gay, bi, tattooed to the gills and dancing out of their minds—an artwork of a different order than a Calder mobile.

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Image courtesy of NAAFI
Image courtesy of NAAFI

But what N.A.A.F.I does is also radical on other levels and it makes me think of the term “living arts” in a new and more expanded way: Jumex Museum has called them a movement; participants feel like they are part of a movement; and clearly they are thinking of themselves as something beyond hip party planners on MDMA. N.A.A.F.I began at a time when partying in Mexico in the middle of a bloody war against drugs was a real risk. N.A.A.F.I is in itself a political statement. It reminded me of how Simon Reynolds speaks of nineties raves in Britain, for instance, because “Rave is more than music+drugs; it’s a matrix of lifestyle, ritualized behaviour and beliefs. To the participant it feels like a religion. […] I think again of that declaration ‘we must make of joy a crime against the state’.” (Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, 4) and like a rave, which “constructs an experience” (author’s emphasis, 9) N.A.A.F.I has constructed an experience here, or as Debord might have called it, a situation. It has detourned the institution into something else.

And the Residency even goes so far as to problematize and question the idea of self-defining as a movement belonging to an underground or periphery and how this kind of rhetoric can actually become a tool for further marginalization. How to break through it is an ongoing question.

What N.A.A.F.I does so well, as this Residency underscores, is to bring many worlds together, and think about how this happens and what it implies. It also generates a safe space for interaction among different vulnerable bodies through dance music. It reminds me of transfeminine artist Wu Tsang’s documentary about Wildness, my favorite party in L.A. which used to take place at the Silver Platter in MacArthur Park, where several underground cultures met (from the trans immigrant community to art college music enthusiasts and anything in between). All this also brings to light an interesting paradox: one person’s safe space can either become threatening to a certain kind of institutional thinking, or perhaps can alchemize into the antidote needed for the institution’s survival.

When discussing what happened after the event with many of its participants, very few still thought it was the death of N.A.A.F.I as a “true” underground movement, others really noticed the political potential being unleashed. To quote Reynolds again “[…] I’ve found this ‘mindless’ music endlessly thought-provoking. And despite its ostensibly escapist nature, rave has actually politicized me, made me think harder about questions of class, race, gender, technology.” (10) This is precisely being thought about in this Residency and openly discussed. But perhaps more important: it is lived in the flesh, in all the erotic life-affirming of the rubbing together of many (mostly) young bodies with young bodies—something which, increasingly, seems to pose a threat to the powers-that-be that want to annihilate young bodies (think of all the young disappeared students in Mexico, but also of countless young black men being killed in the U.S., of Julien Coupat and his “associates” soon to be thrown in prison in France, or the young women arrested for dancing in Russia).

Listen closely. Twerking and grinding might bring the master’s house down.