IT’S SOMETHING IN THE MUSIC MOVIN’ AND GROOVIN’
TRUTH BUBBLING UP UNDERGROUND
LIVE OUTSIDE OF THE BOX
WE GOT THE GROOVES THAT ARE GONNA MAKE YOUR BODY MOVE
And so, film-maker, artist, performer and activist Wu Tsang has landed in Sydney, and is talking to us about her 25-minute film Into a Space of Love. It is one of four commissioned by Frieze art fair in collaboration with Gucci about the origins of house music, commemorating the second summer of love. For her commission, Tsang was invited to respond to New York City, and the result is beautiful, funny and a rich, almost sci-fi, film of personal storytelling, dancing, beat, balloons and so much tinsel and glitter. And hope. Pray tell us more.
“The funny thing is, when I was first approached about this project, I was like, OK, house music is interesting, but I don’t have any personal connection to it. That’s not the music I listen to. But then of course, when I started to go into it, I realised it’s everything that I listen to. It’s the root of club music, dance music, its four-on-the-floor. It’s a certain kind of beat that has shaped everything that has come since,” Tsang explains. “I also think that DJ-ing was really invented with house music – that whole idea of having a turntable and moving between different tracks at the same time and layering sound. All that was something they were literally discovering through experimentation. Which reminds me of friends of mine, because the DJs I know are totally experimenting in that way with sound, and even with the tools of how to produce the sound. I really think that period of time is now. The spirit of what house music is, I think that is happening all around us.” Tsang started her research into the history of house music in New York, Detroit and Chicago, and what struck her when she was reading about the lives of the young people on the scene “is how much it related to my friends now”.
Tsang was born outside Boston and moved to LA in her early twenties. “I kind of came of age there, that’s definitely the city I feel very defined by, and where I reached a realisation of myself as a creative person and as being part of a community,” she says. “When I came up in LA, I was doing a club there called Wildness and my closest friends were DJs, and I’ve continued to be very involved in nightlife. I think a lot about how music is so this ‘thing’ in any given moment, it’s hard to put your finger on what it is… It’s just this ‘thing’. You never call it a movement when it’s actually happening, it’s just happening. So that was the lm I wanted to make and what I wanted to say about New York and how its music has a kind of a spirit that transmutes across time.”
JUST BE WHAT YOU WANT TO BE
Tsang has an open mind when she goes into projects like this. “I put out what I want into the universe and see what comes back.” Everyone she wanted to work with was involved –“so that was a miracle. I’m super-proud of it because I feel like everybody who was making it, all of the crew, the people I was able to hire were almost all brown and queer people, and it was about creating a space to make something together. And I think it was really transformative for everyone involved, it wasn’t just about what was onscreen but about the atmosphere we were creating together.”
Space is an important thread through Tsang’s body of work, how spaces are created – “how they are ephemeral, how they are fragile, and how they are affected by these bigger forces of economic and political oppression”.
House music was born this way. “I think what was surprising to realise was how few people know that house music comes from queer and Latino and black communities,” she says. “It’s an art form out of a period of experiences where space was needed, and dancing was needed, and community was needed. It’s funny to me that, now, when people think of house music, they think of raves and all these white DJs who are just celebrities. And that’s fine, I’m happy for that to exist and that’s the thing about all kinds of subcultures – they cannot be contained, and in fact, cultural appropriation is part of the process, one can never hold onto something. But I think it’s important to know where things come from, it’s fine to love whatever you love but just understand where it comes from.”
Into a Space of Love has great rhyming dialogue in parts, something that Tsang allowed the performers to do via improv. “All their characters’ dialogues are improv – there was a loose script I had, but it’s more like they were prompts, so with each thing I would say, ‘Talk to me about what is underground,’ and there would be an answer, so it’s about people talking in their own language.”
DIVERSITY IS THE REALITY
Tsang has known many of her collaborators since the LA days, such as DJ Asma Maroof. “I used to do Wildness with her back in the day, so it’s nice to know that a lot of the people I was inspired by then are people I still have those relationships with.” Maroof did the score for Into a Space of Love. Tsang also worked with different performers who were all signi cant to the New York house scene. “Venus X and Shaun J Wright play these characters like pirate radio broad- casters who narrate. They are coming from very different perspectives and generations – Venus is an important DJ in New York and does a club called Ghetto Gothic, and she’s been committed to the life in a way that I think is so inspirational. She is the kind of mother to so many queer kids that need family but don’t have that.”
Venus X is undeniably a champion of speaking out and speaking up. “The other three per- formers all come from different generations, too. Kia LaBeija, she is coming out of the ballroom scene, and that’s another part that felt important to include. Specifically in New York, house and ballroom cultures are inseparable – Jeff Simmons has been dancing in the clubs since Paradise Garage in 1977, so basically he has been dancing to house music since its invention. And Kevin Aviance is such a legendary icon from the house scene, from the ’90s to the present – he’s still a performer and he’s an iconic vocalist who’s been on a lot of house tracks.”
BEYOND THE TINSEL CURTAIN, THE BALLOONS, THE FANTASY
It is the quintessential line-up of great people and heart of this fantastical social documentary. Of course, the costumes created by Kyle Luu are wonderfully expressive. “In the lm, Jeff Simmons talks a lot about dressing up to go out to the club back in the late ’70s. He had this one costume where he was a mummy – he would wrap himself head to toe and drive across town to go to the club and would bring a bag of out ts and just keep changing all night long. I think that spirit of the club and dressing up is something that goes back throughout time.
I think maybe that’s having more of an impact on a mainstream level now. For me, the act of getting dressed or dressing up is the essence of gender. It’s how we experience it. The clothes we wear, and how they change the way we feel in our bodies, that’s something that can be tried on in so many different ways and is available to everyone.
“I think in the films I make and in my own personal style, I like to encourage, to sort of be an example that there are no rules with dressing and presentation. It’s how you feel. When I get dressed, it’s primarily about how I feel in my body and how it feels to wear the clothes more than what I look like. I often don’t even look in a mirror, or I’ll glance, but I don’t spend a lot of time. I think that’s a hard thing to remember in the culture we’re in, where it’s so much about your mirror, yourself, your curated social-media presence. I think the hottest and most beautiful thing is when people just feel good in their bodies. That’s what I try to do myself and encourage others to do.”
NYC IS CHANGING, HAS CHANGED
The film is set in the late ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, and Tsang says, “There’s
sort of a gesture towards a sci- future. It’s not specifically about a moment,
like just 1988 – the second summer of love – but that moment and many moments are significant, in the sense that house music is about people creating space for each other when they needed it. In the late ’80s, especially for queer and brown folks in New York, the Aids crisis was full blown and there was no support for queer people financially to survive in an area like Manhattan. And I think that’s increasingly true today. I think it’s harder for queer people to create space there because the rents are going up so high and gentrification is this massive force. The New York of the present and the future is one for me that’s almost apocalyptic when you think of the roots of the culture that has inspired the whole world. Those kinds of spaces where that culture is explored are becoming increasingly rare.”
THE DANCEFLOOR IS FREEDOM
One of the most joyful things Tsang discovered through making the lm was how much she cared about dance. “In a way, the lm is more of a dance history than a music history. Something I learnt from talking to the dancers is that dance is a language and it’s a form of communication and a form of passing history. Dancers learn by dancing with other dancers or older dancers. When something like house music is memorialised, it’s about the DJs or club promoters with these big personalities, but actually the dancers shape the music as much as the DJs, in the sense that it’s dance music. There’s a call and response that’s happening between them. They’re really shaping each other. I think that was something I was excited to discover. That’s a story I wanted to tell, and it was really fun to get to do that.”
LOVE IS THE MESSAGE
Photographer SAMUEL HODGE
Fashion Editor PETER SIMON PHILLIPS
Interview ALISON VENESS
Grooming CLAIRE THOMSON
Talent WU TSANG wearing GUCCI
From Issue 14 of 10 Magazine Australia, on newsstands now.