UCLA recently hosted a 2-day Punk conference, under the headline "Curating Resistance: Punk as Archival Method". One of the keynote speeches was given by Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong, two filmmakers who spent countless nights in the 70s and 80s documenting the punk scene that was shaking ceilings and rumbling floors in the nightclubs of New York City, and who have now immortalised it in the sprawling Go Nightclubbing Archive, hosted at the Fales Library in NYC.
Centered around their homes in the neglected Lower East Side was a community of punk artists and collectives who came together to share and perform at venues such as the iconic CBGB and Danceteria nightclubs, and in their keynote Pat and Emily drew a vivid picture of the colors of these nights; of teenagers who refused to let the fact that they didn’t know how to play a guitar stop them from doing so, of unquestioned and unquestioning sexual fluidity, of pre-parties and after hours, unlicensed events and illegal activities and of a seismic condensation of the punk ethos of a refusal to acknowledge boundaries of any description.
They describe punk as a three-pronged disruption of technology, music and sexuality, where all orthodoxies were thrown into question. Their technology was at the cutting edge of DIY, with Pat and Emily describing how they lagged their heavy equipment all around town, having to carry a range of supplies because they never knew what they would find, but yet managing to achieve some of highest quality footage of the time through connecting their video medium to the audio input of the soundman. Musically, the space was often a free-for-all, with tastes ranging from the minimal- such as an artist dragging around speakers to create a sonic experience through the noise- to the brash and obtrusively loud, as they describe an act who was so deafening the room would all but clear out in seconds. Sexually, they recall the unbounded sexual liberty that tragically ended with the AIDS epidemic, but more than just ‘free love’, they describe a space where gendered identity rules and the heteronormativity of the time were all but abandoned; "no one asked questions because nobody cared".
All in all, Emily and Pat spoke of a time and space defined by un-self-conscious hedonism, decentralized collaborations and the rejection and reversal of prescriptive behaviors and repressive power structures. They lament that punk going forward was romanticized in a way that portrayed it as “more dangerous in ways it wasn’t, and less dangerous in ways it was.” The rebellious nature of the punk scene has often been misrepresented as derivative teenage angst and meaningless anarchy, but the picture Pat and Emily drew was of an anarchism drawn from a collective creation of new realities, new spaces founded in self-determination and autonomy.
And this is why the archival method is so important. Pat and Emily's archives are invaluable because they are the most effective way to bring us back to this context. Subcultures are fleeting, defined by transience, but through archival material the ethos of punk may be seen and even felt, remembered for what it was and not what it was commodified to be. A few years ago the pair set up a video room in the Fales Library, where people could come and watch their footage in a set up akin to the "video room" of the Danceteria back in the 80s. Through this method, described as archival embodiment, the history came alive and, despite the impossibility of complete experience, the stories told were visible and real; stories of an era that is past but still has something to say, of a punk that is still rockin.