LOS ANGELES — Music is, arguably, the secular world’s substitute for the religious experience. From the pilgrimage aspects of festivals like Burning Man and Coachella to the more regular gatherings of warehouse district underground raves and dive bar karaoke nights, contemporary society continues to create ways to socially bond and witness each other’s raw emotional vulnerability. We gather both to transcend the painful realities of our world and to celebrate the joys of togetherness and the awesome wonder of being alive.
Enter Carl Craig’s immersive installation Party/After-Party at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, a 30-minute celebration of the heat, ecstasy, and ultimate comedown of a night spent on the dance floor. Considered a leading figure in Detroit’s second wave of techno artists working the late 1980s and early 1990s, the work comes out of Craig’s long career as an electronic music producer and internationally touring DJ, including serving as the co-creator and artistic director of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2000 and 2001. Party/After-Party debuted at Dia Beacon in March 2020, right as the pandemic hit, which ironically made the nightlife culture the artwork evokes cease to be. It feels appropriate that the work would reappear as the pandemic winds down into something less exigent.
When I visited the museum late on a Tuesday, the gallery was unsurprisingly sparse. Prior to entering, museum staff warned me about the flashing lights and decibel level of the music, which contains references to Craig’s own tinnitus through the inclusion of an occasional high-pitched ring, a seemingly inevitable consequence of his chosen career. I entered during a relative lull in the piece, and was struck by its visual sparseness, exposing the warehouse-cum-museum’s stark steel columns and expansive walls. Walking around the vacuous space with just a few other viewers in the moments before the “party” part of Party/After-Party kicked off I was eerily reminded of walking into a Catholic church during a weekday, with just a few eager parishioners anticipating off-hours deliverance.
Kick off the party does, absorbing all in attendance into the repetitive thudding of a techno beat. The warehouse darkens as the skylights close; neon strips illuminate the space in a light show that very well could bring on an epileptic episode. Alternating through cycles of multicolored flashing and fading, the light effectively conveys the energy of a warehouse rave, with what may or may not be a nod to the minimalist light works of Dan Flavin.
The hot and pulsing beat fades into dreamy waves of sound, still very much in line with techno, as the light show transitions from the flashing neon strips to a center spotlight that illuminates an “X” on the ground. In what felt like an invitation, the viewers still present during my visit (three, including myself) took turns standing beneath it, bringing out our respective personalities — spotlight lover, a little self conscious, and all business (me). Afterward, the spotlight faded and the museum skylights re-opened.
Exiting the darkened room into the daylight was reminiscent of leaving the club at dawn. Fortunately, 30 sober minutes in an art piece does not translate into a hangover, and I was objectively safe to drive when I got back to my car. Whether explicitly spiritual or not, Carl Craig’s Party/After-Party is certainly ceremonial. It is a celebration of a part of us, the human species, that can only emerge collectively, and a testimony to our need to dance, mourn, and rejoice together.
Carl Craig: Party/After-Party continues at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (152 North Central Avenue, Arts District, Los Angeles), through July 23. The exhibition was curated by Kelly Kivland, former curator at Dia Art Foundation, with Randy Gibson, manager of exhibition technology. The Los Angeles presentation is organized by Alex Sloane, MOCA associate curator, with Anastasia Kahn, MOCA curatorial assistant.