Monday-Night Tributes to One of Manhattan’s Most Offbeat Clubs

The Center for Art, Research, and Alliances has partnered with Voluminous Arts to create a series of Monday-night happenings inspired by one of the most galvanizing clubs of the ‘90s.

In the mid-1990s, Manhattan’s Meatpacking District was a place in flux. Its sidewalks still ran with blood from the animal processing industry, which itself was dying out in urban corridors; Sex and the City hadn’t quite yet made over its recent history as sites for queer sexual exploration into fashionable faux-edginess. It remained home for communities of queer, and particularly trans, sex workers, but everyone suspected their time was limited. 

It was also home to the Cooler, a downstairs club with a downtown sensibility. From 1993 until the summer of 2001, it offered space for legendary parties like Giant Step, Koncrete Jungle, and Mutiny, and a stage for everyone from Gil Scott Heron to Autechre. Artist and curator Gavilán Rayna Russom was taken by the Monday-night programming after seeing the experimental filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad workshop new work with a cellist. “One thing about those nights,” she says, “was that they were artist-curated. Two: They were free. And three: They were on Monday nights. Because of those things, you could see artists who have a developed practice doing something genuinely experimental and trying something new.”

That space and time was on her mind when the Center for Art, Research, and Alliances dedicated the summer programming of its airy duplex gallery space in Chelsea to a collaboration between Voluminous Arts, the trans-led organization and record label for trans artists founded by Russom in 2020, and the Octavia Project, a future-oriented nonprofit and summer camp for women and non-binary and trans youth. The result is “bloom how you must, wild until we are free,” which transforms CARA into a multimedia study program for six artists on the Voluminous Arts roster and a free summer program for high school students that focuses in STEM, writing, art, and digital media—and, on five summer evenings, Cooler Nights, Russom’s reimagining of those underground nights in the ‘90s.

The inaugural night offers a screening of Vera Chytilova’s anti-totalitarianism 1987 film Wolf Chalet (Vlčí bouda), and performances by Gyna Bootleg and Naija Couture. These works and performances might have fit in at the Cooler, but perhaps wouldn’t have been welcomed. “The Cooler existed in a part of New York that, at least at night, was very contextualized not only by sex worker communities,” Russom says, “but by sexual organizing communities. And, specifically, trans and drag and gender nonconforming sexual communities. A lot of the knowledge that has now informed New York’s nightlife culture in a commercial way was created in these communities.”

The city’s arts institutions have spent the past few years dancing around the idea of institutionalizing this knowledge, from Lincoln Center’s invocation of Paradise Garage to Dia’s giving Carl Craig the keys to remix its Beacon basement into a techno club. CARA executive director Manuela Moscoso says they’re thinking about place-making as community-building. The gallery has extended its street-level bookstore into a full-floor reading room and gathering space; a small gallery on the second floor will host the screenings. CARA’s double-height main gallery facing the street hosts performances. “Having this room is so determinative,” Moscoso says, “it’s something to wrestle with. That happens in every museum, but this one is very specific. It gives us a contour, so to speak, a framework where we work from.”

The space also has a history, as former home to New York’s famed DFA Records. Russom worked for the label building electronics and recorded for it on her own and as part of LCD Soundsystem and other projects. “The building isn’t just CARA. It’s still the DFA offices, it’s still the playing card factory [it was built to be],” she says. “It’s five blocks from the Black and African self-determination communities along Minetta Creek. It’s a stone’s throw from the Cooler. It’s still half a block from the Greenwich Pub, which was the first drag and trans-centric nightlife space that we know. It’s still across the street from where ACT-UP was being organized.” It could be said that these spaces exist outside of linear time; they remain

“As trans artists working in this area as a gentrified place where there’s an arts institution,” Russom says, “one thing I’m offering resident artists who are curating and participating is to reimagine history in the present, as trans and gender non-conforming people. And to think about the way that the knowledge that was created there got appropriated.” 

For Moscoso, Cooler Nights and the larger summer programming is a chance for people to gather inside these times. “You can have a whole community and never meet them physically,” she says. “This affects our sense of collectivity.” The Cooler closed in large part because of then-mayor Giuliani’s so-called “cabaret laws” that harassed trans and POC artists and audiences and scapegoated nightlife for violence it had little to do with. But it could also be viewed as an effort to destabilize and destroy networks of people who were working hard to envision a place for themselves in the world. These networks remain as well.

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