Mile-wide bell bottoms, mile-high Afros, and the shine of the disco ball illuminating it all. When most think of disco, these are some of the images that come to mind. It’s all light and color, dancing and euphoria.
With “amber,” a sensory installation showing at 12th Avenue Arts through Monday, Sept. 27, co-creators dani tirrell and Markeith Wiley aim to unveil a darker side of the disco era and the Black and brown people of the era who are often obscured by depictions of the era as all flashing lights and upbeat music.
“We don’t talk about that part of the history — the introduction of HIV and AIDS, the amount of drugs that were being used, the amount of sex people were having,” said tirrell in an interview. “It wasn’t all glamour. It was some deep trauma.”
“Amber” is meant to be experienced in small groups (though I enjoyed my solo journey through the exhibit — more on that later) who are guided through the installation by a series of light and sound cues, sharing experiences of audio clips, music, lights, history lessons, stories and, in the end, an open dance floor beckoning you to kick off a dance party.
At the center of the installation, a dimly lit room filled with ’70s-era couches invites you to lounge in a setting meant to evoke scenes of community where folk came together in support and commiseration.
Because while the speakers blasted and the disco ball turned at the clubs, the AIDS epidemic was ravaging LGBTQ communities all over the world, and the people who were dancing all night were often spending all day nursing their ailing friends, or later burying them.
“We know that disco got started from the gay lesbian scene, primarily trans people, primarily Black people, primarily Latin folks and Chicano folks,” said tirrell. “I just think about Black and brown bodies, queer bodies, trans bodies, how we always live in this duality of joy and pain. I personally can’t separate the two. You can’t have one without the other.”
LGBTQ women of the era led the battle against AIDS on many fronts — advocating for action on AIDS, caring for sick friends, organizing mutual aid and community support, and even leading the way in the clubs.
“amber” is tirrell and Wiley’s shoutout to their efforts.
“We don’t talk about those Black queer women, those Latinx queer women, those white queer women that really held down the LGBTQ community during the ’70s and ’80s.” said tirrell. “You’re not necessarily going to see it in this exhibit, but ‘amber’ is definitely a she and ‘amber’ for me incorporates a lot of those voices, a lot of those women that we don’t speak of or we don’t know their names.”
In this time of a wholly different pandemic, Wiley, who is also a DJ, is hearing disco influences reemerge in today’s music in the work of artists like Doja Cat, Bruno Mars and Kaytranada. And tirrell sees the past showing up in other ways, too, as Black and brown communities endure the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic.
“[Black and brown people] have been beat down for so long, and we get back up and keep moving,” said tirrell. “Not to say that we don’t have issues and it’s not tearing the hell out of us, but we’re still moving through. … We’re like, OK, if we can’t do this at least we can gather, listen to good music and dance.”
“It’s another encapsulation of time where we endure and we strive,” said Wiley with a raised fist.
“[“amber’] feels like the right thing for people to walk into right now,” said tirrell.
So that’s what I did.
A solo journey with “amber”
On a Thursday at 1:30 p.m., an extremely unfashionable time, I was the only person to show up for “amber,” so I made a solo journey through the installation.
Although the installation was made to be experienced in small groups, there was something haunting about experiencing it by myself.
I felt like a ghost, wandering through the phantom spaces of a bygone era.
Even so, in the solitude, I could imagine who I’d want there with me, the friends whose reflections I’d see shimmering alongside mine in the tinsel sculptures of the first dark room, or who’d laugh uncomfortably with me as I take a little too long to get the cue to move on to the next room.
In the red-tinted living room area clearly made for a gathering of friends, I could imagine all of us sitting together, a jumble of limbs and bourbon glasses on the fancy couches, alternately broaching fluffy and serious topics as we pregame one of our famously debaucherous nights out. We’d get braver and more intimate by the sip until we were enough of both to venture out into the dark night and make a disco playground out of every place we stop.
Walking through the installation drove home how many of those friends I haven’t seen in years, partly because of life, mostly because of the pandemic. Some of whom I’ll never get to see again.
To imagine that feeling at 100 times the frequency, at 100 times the loss — that’s the tragedy that people were dancing away beneath glittering lights in the disco era.
They wore loud pants and combed their hair to the skies to try to leave an impression on this fleeting lifetime, to out-gleam the shadows overtaking their friends, to reflect the revolutionary changes happening all around them.
They danced beneath a collage of lights and wore shining shirts so their friends could see themselves reflected back as gloriously as they saw them — stunning, alive, shiny.