We got the funk! Do you? Bill Bernstein and Pixel 54 on the legacy of Studio 54
Studio 54 is no more: not in the way we remember. No man on the moon with a coke spoon sign above the door—no crazies and geniuses and going-up-in-flames beauties. Bill Bernstein documented life at Studio 54 and NYC discos for three years, and through the film rolls, we keep going back. Night Fever: New York Disco 1977–1979, The Bill Bernstein Photographs was on display at New York Museum of Sex for three years—and you can buy a book (Disco, from Reel Art Press), or print editions, direct from Bernstein himself. And if Studio 54 the place is gone, Studio 54 the sprawling enterprise endures, as a record label (an album was produced in tandem with Studio 54: Night Magic, which was on view at The Brooklyn Museum in 2020), as a website/shop, as a radio channel on SiriusXM, and now, as an NFT.
NFTs: collectibles, fine art, or something in between the two? The NFT has bombshelled vast swaths of the traditional collectibles market: sports, and now the ephemera of culture. Once cluttered mantelpieces; now cluttered desktops. Fine art? The marketplace has registered the disruption, but there are still doubters: even with a giant gigabyte NFT, you’re not getting a painting, you’re not getting a ten-ton bronze sculpture. And there are the foibles of authentication; the blockchain was supposed to free us of the hucksters, and instead, it breeds them like a wet sponge breeds mosquitoes.
“Couch Scene” excerpt by Bill Bernstein
Regulations? Tweeks? Will NFT platforms and sellers and buyers find their protocols? Probably, even if for now an old-school has resorted to old-school paper authentication, and you better check twice before you bid on that Rembrandt NFT.
But what about the third category? The in-between? If there’s a societal inclination to merge collectibles and arts, there’s an entrenched resistance to a unified market. Art Basel is not the Antique Roadshow. And while NFTs are already part of an artworld orthodoxy, if you look at the work of Claudia Hart, let’s say, who tallies the bonafides and has enthusiastically taken to NFTs, she’s always been drawn to web aesthetics—incel or Donkey Kong—while the thruline of NFT to Ad Reinhardt is harder to fathom. Would other art/artists work better? A Jean-Michel Basquiat banana peel? Yup. Part of what’s so exciting about NFTs is the slice-it, dice-it applicability. But that big, big money: those paintings; those bronzes. How can the art market scale “great masterpieces” to NFTs? Maybe the in-betweens, those works that are part high art, part collectible, will catalyse the transition of NFTs from the museum gift shop to the museum.
“Studio 54 Dancefloor Ecstasy” by Bill Bernstein
The Bernstein/Studio 54 NFTs, soon to be released on SuperRare, strike the balance. Fine art? Yes. Collectibility? Yes. History that you want to own forever? Yes.
1977: The Village Voice, then the pre-eminent downtown arts & culture rag, sent twenty-eight year old Bill Bernstein to shoot some photos for a libs feel-good piece about UNICEF honoring President Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian. The venue? Studio 54. Bernstein didn’t know what to expect; Steve Rubell’s every-night party had opened to a nearly instantaneous notoriety. Andy Warhol talked about dictatorship at the door, and democracy on the dance floor—which undulated with the city’s most freakish and most fabulous. After shooting the rolls of film he’d bought for the Lillian Carter thing, Bernstein hadn’t had enough, and bought ten more rolls of film from a photographer who was out. Bernstein kept shooting that night, and kept shooting Studio 54 and New York discos for three years. He was awed by the splendor of the clubs and the club people, one night after another. And what was wild—drugs, gender everything, and all kinds of sex—was just part of the pageantry.
“The crowd was a beautiful, harmonious mix of straight, LGBTQ, African-American, Latino, young and old, rich and struggling … a few celebrities,” he remembers on his website. “It was this judgment-free, inclusive environment of acceptance that caught my eye…. Everyone was a ‘star for the night’ and Studio 54 was a great place to lose your mind, and your inhibitions.”
— BILL BERNSTEIN
“Studio 54 Solar” by Bill Bernstein
The four Bernstein NFTs (more may come) pair his now iconic photographs, as well as photos not seen before, with disco tracks produced by Morgan Wiley, who’s worked with Midnight Magic, Hercules & Love Affair, and Jessica 6, and recorded with LCD Soundsystem. The first of the NFTs, “Studio 54 Couch Scene Contact Sheet,” to be released September 22, moves through the 24-shot roll of Bernstein’s much reproduced corner couch tableau: five then four figures are bored and cool and lusty. A Ken-Burns style zoom and pan is synched to a synth drum loop. “Studio 54 Dancefloor Ecstacy,” to be released September 29, cuts from wide to close on a grainy, color flux image of the dancefloor in motion. The scene is agitated by the palpitating music, but there’s something almost zen about the figures, who are simultaneously in the moment, and watching the moment. “3AM at Paradise Garage, July 1979” captures the fashion and disco moves of the sweaty mirrors-and-velvet venue; the black and white still is the single NFT of the group to present a static shot, sans music. To be released October 11 in tandem with National Coming Out Day, “Studio 54 Solar-NRG Ft. Patrick Cowley” zooms, pans, strobes, flips and reverses on the swarming dance pit: clap those hands; take a deep drag on that, uh, cigarette; just look pretty; and beam in on that electric sound.
The four drops highlight work from Bernstein’s forthcoming book, Last Dance, which documents NYC club culture from 1977-81. Ten percent of the proceeds from the NFT sales will go to the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and its mission to “protects and defends the human rights of black transgender people.” A second campaign, Pixel 54, release date to be announced, will drop pixel/music NFTs which loosely correspond to the Bernstein Photos, and groove to Jitwam & TEYMORI’s Help Yo Self, released as of August by Studio 54 Music. The Pixel 54 NFTs gif the dancefloor and the Studio 54 couches as a photographer, possibly Bernstein himself, shoots with a flash. Just beyond the velvet ropes, a woman crosses the front hall on horseback. Bianca Jagger? These drops will come out every Friday for four weeks beginning on September 24th, and ten percent of the proceeds will go to Sound Mind Live, which is dedicated to an open, communal approach to mental health through music.
Familiarity, in the context of NFTs, drives bidding. But in the context of the artworld—of Chelsea, of 57th Street—familiarity dulls value. Not always true—tick off obvious exceptions, Banksy, Damien Hirst—but there is nevertheless a greater proprietorship in owning a physical object. A sculpture or drawing can be made inaccessible to anyone but the owner and those so-blessed by the owner. And the other thing: in the artworld of yore, value is not only derived from inaccessibility, but inscrutability. If everyone understands and loves a work, it doesn’t have the same value as a work that most people just “don’t get.” Art is a demarcation of sophistication. If it’s for everyone, it’s for nobodies. Will that ever change? Should it? Despite the hierarchical horror of the art-collector-as-ubermensch, the isolation of art from popular opinion allows for experimentation, and, ironically, also allows artists an increased freedom of perspective on political, etc., subjects. Creative freedom in exchange for indenture to the rich? A bad trade? Maybe. But if art for everyone is the answer, do we condone fame culture? The question post Andy Warhol has been one where fame culture might take us: to a nirvana of egalitarianism, or a new Gods class, a la Mount Olympus, or, well, not that much further than it’s taken us already.
Photography, to the galleried artworld, has always been the odd duck out. The numbers in the editions feel arbitrary and insincere—there could always be another edition of one hundred, two hundred, ten thousand, and there are heaven knows how many valueless reproductions of, let’s say, Lisette Model’s Coney Island series. At the same time, popular images are a commodity—and the blockchain could solve the longstanding problem of authentication and provenance.
What’s wonderfully appealing about the myth of Studio 54 is its prescient vision of a diverse, inclusive, non-judgemental mindset. Of course, that’s a misremembering of history. The NYC club culture of the ‘80s was not one of supportive acceptance: the idea was very much to make a new culture totally apart from normative culture, which could fuck off. Fabulous people only—and fabulous specifically in the Warhol equation of the very rich, and the very self-destructive, and the very cool. Studio 54, the Mudd club—uptown, downtown—one of the more distinguishing characteristics of a club was who it didn’t let in, who was in the line outside, who wasn’t deemed worthy. The wrong celebrities, the not beautiful, whatever. And today’s bourgeois safe space was teetotality not part of the ethos. Does the chosen-few psychology play to the NFT? To what can be a culty, secret-knowledge sect? Studio 54 forever. But only if you’re in the know. Only if you help yo self.
John Reed is the author of numerous books including A Still Small Voice (Delacorte Press/Delta), The Whole (Simon & Schuster /Pocket/MTV Books), the SPD bestseller, Snowball's Chance (Roof Books/Melville House), and All The World's A Grave: A New Play By William Shakespeare (Penguin Books/Plume). His work has been published in (selected) Artnet, the Brooklyn Rail,Tin House, Paper Magazine, Artforum, Hyperallergic, Bomb Magazine, Art in America, the PEN Poetry Series, the Los Angeles Times, the Believer, the Rumpus, the Daily Beast, Gawker, Slate, the Paris Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the Wall Street Journal, Electric Literature, Vice, The New York Times, and Harpers.
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