someone dressed as the clown from It, penny wise, grinds against a girl bent over, and both of them are lit by neon green lighting on stage in front of loads of people in a club
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Chaotic Nightclub Photos

GDLP

Emoji summary: 🍹🕺🤮

We’re in a nightclub. It’s British, generic. We could be in Newcastle, Southampton or anywhere in between. It’s heaving. The songs are the songs from the radio, just louder. The drinks are cheap, everybody has one: gold and blue liquids poured into big plastic cups (cups that are eventually dropped onto the floor, and that crack into sticky plastic shards underfoot). It is dark and bright in here all at once. It’s going to be a nightmare to clean up. The toilets smell equally and competitively of bleach, aftershave and piss; the girls form life-long or night-long bonds while they queue.

The crowd is drunk. Horny and nervous, too. There’s a girl in the centre. She has red hair. I can see her eyeshadow, a matching orange that blooms over white skin, because she has her eyes closed. In spite of the noise, her face looks so at peace. There’s a tall man pressed up behind her, breathing heavily into her ear or leaning down to kiss her neck. He’s feeling her chest with both hands so intensely that we can see veins taut on the back of them. She is stunned, ascending for all we know. And this girl is the centre of a glowing vision: foreplay for a Pre-Raphaelite, or the Ecstasy of St Theresa. Except this isn’t a famous painting or a sculpture in a church in Italy, it’s the perfect result of nightclub photography in modern Britain, and everyone is glowing because of the hot white flash of the DSLR camera.

These two should probably get a room but actually, privacy might undo what’s happening here. Another girl who could be a friend is holding a vodka red bull in one hand and pointing at the camera with the other. Her pupils are completely dilated. Inexplicably, there is an old man in a suit next to the three of them looking like he has walked into the wrong room — or maybe it’s the exact right one; his cheeks are flushed, his eyebrows are raised, and his shirt is mostly unbuttoned. Behind, people wave their hands in the air to the music, no idea what is happening right next to them.

two white boys smile for the camera in a club, and the guy on the left has his arm around his friend, not realising that the bottle in his hand is now pointing down at the floor, and a fountain of yellow alcohol is streaming down to the ground

On March 20, a new Twitter account appeared called Chaotic Nightclub Photos, found at @ClubPhotos_. This was the first image it posted. It gained over 300,000 followers in its first week and, just 50 tweets in, it now has one million. No words, no captions. It shares images, and the occasional video, once, twice or a few times a day. It accepts submissions from followers for its content — glorious content that looks like this:

A woman tries to deepthroat an entire beer while a man looks on in horror. Another woman in a green dress tries to deepthroat her own hand. A man in a leather jacket swings his arms up in the air while a woman in chunky blue heels flies upside-down through the air over him. A different man stands at a different bar; the staff serving him have no idea he is pissing in front of it. A girl smiles innocently for the camera but she has no idea there’s a woman setting her hair on fire. Another hand disappears into another mouth. A white boy smiles, the tip of his nose and cheeks printed with the foundation of the Black girl smiling beside him (the placement of the colour makes him look like a smitten clown). A group all stand in a line to pose for the camera; two of the three men have a blur of pink lipstick around their mouths that matches the girl’s make-up in the centre. A man smiles as his front tooth falls out of his mouth, caught in mid-air by the flash. There’s a dog in the club. And you know those urinals that look like troughs that animals eat out of? There’s a man asleep inside one of them. Everyone is having the time of their lives and I can’t look away.

At face value, the reason is because the images are hysterical, a mystery, and occasionally beautiful. Why is there a dog in the club? Did these people survive the night? The account makes me think of the antics I once got up to in huge heels and tiny dresses. I wonder if any pictures starring my 17-21 year old self are still online. I hope to god they are not. And I imagine this reaction can be applied to most followers. It’s funny, sometimes shocking. That’s that and that’s enough.

Except… I am so fascinated by this account that I want to give more words to the topic. I am getting that call to arms when something particularly mad is happening in culture and because I personally enjoy it, and I have the dumb power of a critic, I want to figure out what its value is for the sake of posterity, art history and myself. Where has this all come from?

a black and white engraving is captioned 'a typical dive in the sixties, the french madame's of 31st street, showing men and women sat at cloth tables in a busy room

For as long as there have been nightclubs, artists have been chronicling what goes on inside them. For some reason, this is very funny to me; too many artists are very serious people, so to imagine some of them embedded on a dance floor makes me feel relieved. But in this long lineage of art history in the run up to Chaotic Nightclub Photos, everything is unrecognisably calm. Boring. As much as I want to see a Victorian man deepthroating his friend’s pocket watch for a laugh, that image simply does not exist. Even if people were up to no good (and good for them), the naughty or eponymous chaotic activities never make it into the art of the time. I’m going to blame a hangover of religion for making everyone in the past look like they had boring nights out. Anything taboo is whispered.

The earliest nightclubs appeared in New York in the 1840s. An article in a 1927 issue of The New Yorker reflects on ‘When New York Was Really Wicked’ with contemporary engravings of concert saloons from the 60s. These saloons ‘provided dancing and liquor, but the principal attractions were the waiter girls and the low theatrical performances, although some of the cheaper establishments, particularly those along the Bowery, offered as entertainment only a piano virtuoso, who was always drunk and was always called the Professor.’ Music, bevvies, and women serving them; time is a flat circle. In the images, everyone is seated and fully clothed. The other day, Chaotic Nightclub Photos shared a picture of a girl pulling her own skirt up to take a photo of her crotch. It currently has 81 thousand likes. You can see my issue here — it is a trip looking back.

a white, blonde barmaid is stood at a bar with her hands up on the counter, mirrors behind her show people in the venue all seated and wearing hats

Édouard Manet’s last major work, painted in 1882, shows a blonde barmaid front and centre at the Folies-Bergère, a bar that offered entertainment ranging from ballet to circus acts — and where the barmaids were assumed to be sex workers on the down-low. The down-low stays there. In the mirrors behind her, we can see a sea of people under the chandeliers. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was famously painting Parisian nightlife as early as 1888, showing us dancers kicking their legs at the Moulin Rouge. In his paintings, there are crowds pressed up against one another, and abstract lines to indicate movement and flow around the room. He captures the look and feel of a space filled with music. But by modern standards, his work just touches the surface. The same goes for John Sloan’s 1907 painting of people walking into the Haymarket club; the sign above the door illuminates the entrance, there is a whole glow of activity through the windows, but the artist stays carefully outside. It just seems cute that there were nightclubs that long ago, you know? But who wants a nightclub to be cute.

a nighttime scene shows the haymarket sign lit up, and a few women in big white dresses and elaborate hats walking into the venue, some men milling about outside in suits as well

Also in 1888, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described another of New York’s first nightclubs, Webster Hall, as ‘a big, bare, dingy place, where all the year round discontented men meet to discuss their wrongs and sympathise with one another, and where secret societies and political organisations, labour unions and similar associations make a business of pleasure. It is a grimy neighbourhood, where the rattle of retail trade continues all day and leaves poverty to toss itself to sleep at nightfall.’ This sounds like what we’re looking for. But when they made a business of pleasure, what did that look like? Because the earliest images of Webster Hall by photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals (likely taken in the early 1900s) just show girls lined up in a costume ball, lightly holding each other’s dresses to make a procession. I am disappointed at no one in particular, just everyone, and also myself.

Over in Europe, Jeanne Mammen was painting carnival crowds in Berlin in the 1920s with a covert focus on Lesbian couples; dancing closely, head to head, all dressed up and bright. Very sweet and polite. Kind of cute, again. And on my internet travels from the 20s onwards, I just found a lot of photojournalism and archival footage of nightlife across the world that continued to keep up appearances.

two different paintings by Jeanne Mammen: both of women in parties, posing and laughing, drawn with black outlines, with not too much detail except for clothes and quick lines of colour to show streamers and balloons behind them

Even when I arrived at the late 70s Studio 54 era of glamorous celebrity-exclusivity, and even though there are stories of sex on the club’s balcony and open drug use, the pictures stay so incredibly clean. Grace Jones wears red sunglasses that match her red lipstick on the dance floor, wrapped in a huge piece of glittering blue fabric that comes down from a headdress to twist around her waist and end up in a knot; a young Dolly Parton strokes a huge white horse in the club, except it seems kind of casual that there’s a horse in the club; and then Bianca Jagger arrives on another white horse to celebrate her 30th birthday. I guess this establishment was used to horses. I understand that the celebrities starring in the images might explain why the photos stay proper, I’m just personally surprised that none of the edgier moments broke through. That would make me like them more.

Grace Jones dancing in Studio 54 in 1978, wearing a shimmering blue outfit with red sunglasses, and there's a whole host of photographers behind her

Back over in the UK, Denzil Forrester was creating drawings that lasted the length of a record. Set up in dance halls in London in the early 80s, he would take the sketches back and turn them into huge abstract paintings in his studio — abstract but still locatable. He writes, ‘in these clubs, city life is recreated in essence: sounds, lights, police sirens, bodies pushing and swaying in a smoke-filled room.’ The abstraction actually feels more sincere in some ways: people turned into spirits made of colour and light embody (or transcend) the atmosphere Forrester describes. And so, it feels like we’re getting there. Things are getting recognisable whilst loosening up.

a painting of blues and purples and white streaks, all glowing outwards from a disco ball, shows a group of black clubbers around a vinyl record player

Wolfgang Tillmans was there to document club culture after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, important work considering both the social history and the no photo policies in place. In a Crack Magazine podcast, he said, ‘For me, photographing queer spaces isn’t voyeurism. I feel I have a duty to preserve it.’ In Mark Leckey’s film ‘Fiorucci made me hardcore’ from 1999, he collages tape footage from the 70s, 80s and 90s of underground raves and Northern Soul. Heady cuts and crops mimic the unstable, high atmospheres of clubbing at the time. And even if sex and drugs aren’t pictured, they feel like they’re just off camera in these works, which seem to praise the distinct spiritualism of the night. Art feels like it is finally coming to life; and this run of art based on nightclub scenes, from the Victorians to Chaotic Nightclub Photos, is reaching the finish line.

a photograph shows a person who has dyed their short shaved hair blue with black leopard prints painted onto his hair, and he wears a similar blue camouflage long sleeved shirt, they are facing an orange wall with their hands up against it and we can't see their face

To continue this trajectory, we might look to Wu Tsang working with the Silver Platter bar in Los Angeles in the 2000s — but we might not look to artists at all, we might not need to. Once we’re over the millennium hill, people have cameras and camera phones, paparazzi are ruining people’s lives, Google Images exists, and social media is born. Even though artists still take club culture as a starting point for inspiration, they aren’t the only ones with the scoop anymore. Documentation is being produced on an exponential rate by everybody, all of the time. Everyone’s taking part in this group project of a documentary lifestyle. Surveillance culture means people are more used to being photographed in general; people are in photos they might not have consented to, and in the backgrounds of others without even knowing.

As capitalism makes us more and more insane, we accept that the day is for production and the night for consumption; we drink and dance and photobomb and pull each other, losing our minds in an attempt to free ourselves from all of it, even if we’re back in work the next day.

We live in a weird time where we are made to think of ourselves as special individuals with the potential to increase our unique capital if only we work hard, look good and market our personal brand to anyone and everyone. So, when the clubs start hiring in-house photographers, it makes a lot sense. The nightclub has created an attraction for customers who then have access to high quality photos of themselves that they can use on their Internet profiles, including private dating profiles. These photos come with a high-flash high-colour allure that is reminiscent of a paparazzi shot; they make us feel like we are the celebrities worthy of being photographed. We are drunk when these pictures are being taken and so we are charmed by this fantasy.

Plus, the club has also expanded their business: not only can punters purchase images on key-rings and other tat, but all these images, produced night on night, are easy marketing. Whack the logo of the club in the corner and hope others will see what their friend has been tagged in and pop down for the same treatment.

At the same time as these developments, the Internet is going mad for memes. A popular meme format emerges based on the tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons where players create their own characters with the help of alignment charts which consist of two axis: one that plots lawful, neutral and chaotic personality traits with another for good, neutral and evil ones. Internet users swap words in and out or take the original chart to plot characters in popular bands and shows, and so on, for their own amusement. As to be expected with the replicating nature of memes, the word ‘chaotic’ appears more and more online but especially in meme-heavy Internet circles — circles where gimmick accounts are familiar to the timeline.

Gimmick accounts include parodies on social media of real people or fictional characters, as well as subject-specific accounts and creative bots. I follow many because most tweets make me angry or bored, and these are always a weird treat, breaking up the timeline with nonsense or art. If you’re not familiar, take a look at @unicode_garden which is a bot that generates random squares of emojis and computer symbols to make a garden in the 280 character-long text box, or the hundreds of no context accounts, for example @ukgranddesigns. No context accounts share subtitled screenshots from TV shows and films that followers then save or quote tweet for their own meme-ends.

More recently, I’ve been noticing gimmick accounts that build on the language and extreme personalities of alignment charts, bringing all these elements together. ‘Absolutely insane YouTube comments’ @insanepplYT, ‘Chaotic Facebook Posts’ @ChaoticFacebook, and of course, ‘Chaotic Nightclub Photos.’ All three of these accounts have only been tweeting in the past few weeks, immediately attracting huge follower counts of the very-online users primed to enjoy them.

a photo from CNP shows an old man in a suit with a young woman grinding up against him, and honestly his expression is so weird, like he's just found on some bad news; and she is leaning forward onto another man who is laughing and moving away

It is out of these conditions that Chaotic Nightclub Photos is born. We let loose because we need to; we take a million photos to sell ourselves; we are so surveilled we feel anonymous; we entertain (or reassure) ourselves by looking at people we think are madder than us; and we continue to chronicle nightclub high jinks like we’ve always done because they’re always there to chronicle.

While all the examples of club-related artworks are united in a common goal to capture the energy of nightlife, the difference here is that the images created through modern nightclub photography are not made by artists in the usual Fine Art sense. They’re not the result of a single artist making art for the hell of it — or even the love of it. The images are the outcome of a decentralised and informal labour market; of freelance photographers across the world taking on casual, non-contracted night jobs for supplemental income.

This practice is so painfully typical of the time we are living through. When somebody a hundred years from now does what I have done today in tracking a history of artists’ responses to nightlife, our present era of club photography is going to speak to the economic and political system we are living through more clearly than any stage of the genre so far. It’s kind of sad, but all the more important in terms of art history; the contemporary artists working with nightclubs as their subject now mostly refract the atmosphere through conceptual frameworks in sculpture and performance, only alluding to the electricity of nightlife. It’s like static in comparison, whereas nightclub photography (however boring it gets) still holds a spark.

Because Chaotic Nightclub Photos really is just a small, curated selection of the wider production going on. The majority of images created through the daily business of nightclub photography are, in fact, boring. They serve one purpose. They only matter to the people inside them, and it’s just a case of strangers with their arms around each other, smiling for the memories. So, not dissimilar to a lot of the other art mentioned above in that it’s not alarming enough to rouse me.

CNP is doing a lot of legwork to filter the content and frame the most chaotic stuff in a way that just personally fascinates me because the process takes the straight-laced marketing strategy behind the job and completely betrays it, to my delight. I think that, because of this, it stands out from its lineage. It’s accidentally subversive. Even though the photographers aren’t really expected to bring an individual artistic vision to the work, and instead match up with the exact same faux-paparazzi style as everybody else, nightclub photography feels more artistic than everything I’ve seen in the field because of this incidental problem it raises: does CNP actually un-do the honest work of marketing that the pictures are supposed to achieve? Or does CNP help in the marketing of a particular nightclub because it sends the image of that place completely viral?

I wish I had the answers. I recognise that CNP doesn’t tweet out the locations in pictures but there’s almost always a reply from someone who recognises the venue or the logo in the corner, so they are being labelled even if it isn’t necessarily direct. I guess in this knot, I’m more curious as to whether the scenes we are being shown — people vomiting mid-air and whatever — are enticing or repulsive. I’m sure there are plenty who see a picture like that and think, okay, I know to stay away. But there are also going to be people who want to vomit in the club and have that moment memorialised, and part of me loves that for them because I kind of love to see it?

As CNP wrestles with this question of marketing and anti-marketing, it turns something else on its head as well. When I was reading about Wolfgang Tillman’s photography in clubs in Berlin in the 90s, there was a lot of emphasis on the no photo policies he was denying in his work. Those policies still stand for some venues today, not just in Berlin but elsewhere. Lutz Leichsenring from the Berlin Club Commission states that, ‘clubs that protect guests’ privacy by means of a strict photography prohibition ensure that the participants of the events show more openness and act without a façade.’ It is hard to argue with this. We can’t know what the people in CNP scenes would be like if they were put behind closed doors; we can’t know who is not allowed to feel or present as their full selves given the threat of hate crimes in this country and across the world. And still, CNP seems to run through the façade like it’s a finishing line ribbon at the end of a fun run. People also act up to the camera in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

three white women in bridesmaids-style dresses, quite formal wear, are absolutely off their faces drunk or high or both, shaking their heads so their hair is going in all directions

I found myself doing this when I wrote the introduction comparing a girl to a Pre-Raphaelite, but the contents of these images are often dramatic in a way that is reminiscent of allegorical scenes from art history.

A few years ago, there was another gimmick Twitter account called Tabloid Art History that put tabloid shots alongside Da Vinci’s and Bacon’s. In an interview with Vox, the creators try to make sense of the project, writing ‘tabloid images, celebrity photo shoots, reality TV appearances: they are all just byproducts of visual media. We engage with them in the same way that past societies engaged with paintings of the Madonna in the Renaissance, or royal portraits, or the Cassandras and Athenas from the classical period.’ When talking about the benefits of comparing the tabloids with art history, they explain ‘you also get to see a lot of formal similarities, shapes and colours and positions that are similar and seem to convey the same messages. You learn so much about the way you consume images, past and present, in that way.’

There could easily be yet another gimmick account that exists to respond to CNP in the same way. And actually, followers regularly reply with classic artworks they think match up well. Some artists even turn the club photos into art history edits. I mention Tabloid Art History here at the end of this text to bring us full circle.

Chaotic Nightclub Photos made me wonder if any previous art around nightclubs was as unhinged or explicit — I think this is because I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to know if there was more like it to consume; and I think I was on the hunt because if everyone in the past was just as rowdy as we are, I would find it reassuring to know we have always been like this and it’s not just capitalism making us do these cursed things. While I might not have been able to find anything that stood up to Chaotic Nightclub Photos (which is not to say it does not exist, just that I’m probably a bad researcher), the work of Tabloid Art History has made me realise that there is a common magic going on. Whether or not I or anybody else can personally project specific references onto the photos doesn’t matter; we still get the sense that some of them elevate our mortal nonsense into something important — something from a story, something to be remembered, something to be photographed.

a girl smiles for the camera in a club lit up blue, and next to her two men in conversation are inexplicably holding a small brown dog, while there's an old DJ in the background

p.s.

and also