Guns at the Pool Party
The police exhibited racism and homophobia while shutting down the Ray-Ban x Boiler Room Weekender festival, promoted as a safe space for underground artists. Three days later Trump was elected president.
On the weekend before the election, an American social experiment was on display: an invite-only corporate-sponsored music festival at the Split Rock resort and indoor waterpark in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. The two-day festival invited 3000 attendees to mingle with music collectives from the New York underground, including GHE20 G0TH1K, Wrecked, Discwoman, Sublimate, Mixpak, and NON. Journalists were invited from Pitchfork, Thump, Fact and Paper, and as I was alerted to when I was given an alcohol wristband, so were those under 21. All ages, all ethnicities, all genders, and all genres. The festival was – in the language of the marketing PDFs that might’ve pitched this event to the urban 18-34 set – unprecedented, progressive, cultural and experiential.
In that sense, the “Ray-Ban x Boiler Room Weekender” was the best of its kind. Boiler Room, which began in 2010 as an underground music livestream, distinguished itself for its unimpeachable curation, adopting the Red Bull Music Academy model of identifying and promoting emerging artists around the world before they hit aboveground attention. True to the Boiler Room format, the festival would be filmed and livestreamed and promoted internationally on social media as well as a Ray-Ban x Boiler Room microsite. Ray-Ban, its corporate sponsor of three years, seemed interested in Boiler Room’s blanket underground aesthetic, which fits well with the sunglasses company’s slogans “It takes courage,” and “Never Hide” – revolutionary-sounding platitudes that could apply as easily to hacktivist collectives or evangelicals on college campuses. Such blanket endorsement would appear necessary when curating a wide-reaching festival with, on one hand, Wrecked – the New York contingent of a Euro-American network of alt gay techno-house parties, hailed by Resident Advisor as part of “America’s gay techno underground” – and, on the other, NON – a music label and literary magazine that imagines a Pan-African borderless state under a logo that took the Communist symbol of the sickle and hammer and turned it into a sickle and a machete.
That Ryan Smith and Venus X were at the same party was indeed something of an accomplishment. It was a kind of Family of Man exhibition for a generation that grew up with America Online and Total Request Live. Unlike a previous generation who grew up in the McCarthy era, ours was one that understood the camera as a form of power, as “visibility.” A phrase I kept hearing in anticipation of the event was “bottom-up” that seemed to promise empowerment, that the underground subcultures would rise to prominence and direct the mainstream mass culture on our own terms.
It sounded as lovely as it did naïve, though it’s easy to play along when the party is free. By which I mean, the non-material costs – lending our subversive-looking outfits and skin tones to be associated with sunglasses – seemed a bizarre but small price for a weekend at a waterpark and resort with New York’s underground elite. I mean, this wasn’t Monsanto. But more specifically, it was produced by Boiler Room: a name that holds the same cultural cachet as the MoMA PS1 Warm-Up or the New Museum Triennial. The subversive nature of its politics went as far as what its performers were willing to express on camera, as when Berghain resident Tama Sumo responded to homophobic comments by hosting a livestreamed “kiss-in” where same-sex partners kissed during the entirety of her DJ set. Or when Rozay Labeija, performing with Celestial Trax, shouted into the microphone the night after the Orlando shootings, “I will not be silent!”
Such political demonstrations – “visibility" – do particularly well on social media, where both Boiler Room and its talent are particularly fluent. And it was through social media that the Weekender’s music collectives distributed secret access codes to their friends and followers to the festival, which vanished at the hallucinatory speed of an H&M capsule collection. At the event, attendees posted videos and selfies on Instagram and Twitter to followers who knew about the party but either couldn’t make it or couldn’t secure an invite. Pictures of hot tubs, electric fireplaces, rubber palm trees at the pool party, and club kids in Eckhaus Latta waiting in line for the McDonalds. There was something so public about the event, something so self-aware and self-congratulatory, that managed to put everyone on edge, to mine every anxiety of the New York underground except for those 3000 people who were at Split Rock the weekend before the election.
I arrived that weekend with what could’ve been a representative sample of the designers, writers, fashion buyers, and artworld media professionals who made up the 3000 at large. Throughout the weekend, I ran into party promoters, Bushwick gallerists, DJs, photographers, feminist zine editors and editors at major magazines, and the occasional hedge fund manager with the alt haircut and Balmain jeans. It was all very professional, which explains why the overall energy was notably tame. Nobody knew if the girl with the green hair was a fashion designer or a NAAFI groupie, or if the guy in the performance fleece was actually an editor for Art in America. Nobody knew for sure, so nobody wanted to look stupid. I didn’t want to look stupid.
“I love how fucked up everyone is,” a friend said to me at the Mixpak pool party, and when I looked around, I wondered, Are they? People walked around in swimwear, looking dazed while wading through the pool or reclining on lounge chairs as cameramen cruised the premises. Unwittingly, the general self-consciousness mixed with sleep deprivation had resurrected heroin chic, and become indistinguishable from an actual drugged experience.
I wandered the water park as if in a trance, wondering if the family-friendly atmosphere might have been due to the actual families who were lounging on the periphery, or out by the kid pool with the Pennsylvania vacationers who might not have known their trip coincided with what one Walgreens cashier referred to as “the rave.” It never occurred to me the locals might feel less than amused. Then I noticed the guns.
Security had stepped up. Around the water park, half naked guests swayed to the music as security in full uniform circled around the perimeter. Security started checking bags at the entry to the changing rooms, an increase from the previous night that seemed reasonable but unnecessary. Multiple people said their wallets were rifled at security check, bill by bill. Throughout the waterpark, security guards in all black patrolled the guests. Mhysa, who performed Friday night as SCRAAATCH, posted a Twitter video claiming security approached her and her partner in the Jacuzzi and said “can you get off of him?” but “He ain’t say nothing to the white girl that was on her boo.”
Saturday night, the last night of the festival, Blood Orange – arguably the biggest name on the weekend’s roster – was scheduled to perform. After, Venus X’s GHE20 G0TH1K party took over the main ballroom where Andre 3000, with whom people had posted selfies all weekend, was rumored to perform with his previous collaborators Divine Council.
It was the headline party of the night, run by a certain “demographic” i.e. black and brown queers deemed unprofitable by corporations that pitch themselves as “aspirational.” “At the time when I started, very much like now, there has been nowhere for my DJs to play,” said Venus X in Resident Advisor. “So I’m here to make sure the people who are constantly used or disregarded or whatever have space.” It was an accurate assessment, even though “now” is not anything like seven years ago, when GHE20 G0TH1K is on a world tour, and its early DJs and performers – including Arca, Total Freedom, and Mykki Blanco – headline biennials and fashion week parties, and have produced tracks for Kanye West and Frank Ocean.
Yet underground status had been exchanged for universal respect, apparent in the way people arrived to the ballroom with an air of nostalgia, customary for any party that lasts longer than three years in New York. The crowd was notably more dressed up than the previous night, decked out in mesh and Comme des Garcons and latex and Chelsea boots. I was dancing in Rick Owens sneakers and a borrowed kimono from Saks, trying to huff poppers while dodging the film crew when, right before MikeQ came on, the music stopped.
Security began clearing the room. “That’s what happens when you mix drugs with alcohol,” one guard had said. As we were hoarded out of the ballroom, the mezzanine was filled with confused guests who were under bright lights and paranoid because this actually isn’t what happens when you mix drugs with alcohol. “I just saw a twenty-person fight,” I heard one guest say. “I just popped my molly,” said another. In disbelief, everyone was ordered to evacuate, or if they were staying in the building, return to their rooms. People were either amused, paranoid, or somewhat electrified by the sudden sense of drama. People were smiling because they were either uncomfortable, or the policemen lined up along the mezzanine seemed so out of proportion and somehow funny. I thought there was a joke to be found, until I looked behind me, above the guests herding down both sides of the double staircase, and saw the look on Venus X’s face behind rose-tinted glasses, walking down with MikeQ and Angel-Ho and she was yelling about “racist police” to the hundreds of guests gathered beneath the chandelier, texting each other to find out where the afterparty was at.
There was no afterparty. The festival was shut down within fifteen minutes after Kaylan Jones, a 19-year-old black girl from Chicago, was arrested and sent to Carbon County jail for two nights at a $50,000 bail for possession of marijuana and a fake ID. Another attendee, Daniel Moore, suffered bloody injuries across his forehead and nose during an altercation of “physical confrontations” where 18 were cited for “disorderly conduct.” At the time of the arrest, the Boiler Room livestream abruptly switched to a black screen with a message of interrupted service, as onlookers began filming the arrest with their cell phones. Local police were called in for reinforcement, and proceeded to hit the arms of people who were filming, shouting “It’s none of your business” or in some cases threatening arrest. One witness, who had her cell phone snatched by venue staff while filming, reported it returned with the screen “smashed.”
In cell phone videos of the arrest, you see Jones in crimped hair, a leather jacket and the kind of red plaid skirt you could find at an Urban Outfitters. In another, she is crouched on her knees halfway down the double staircase, empty as the entrances are each blocked off by policemen. Jones can be heard losing her breath, handcuffed, and sobbing audibly, “No don’t, not yet” and “I can’t, I can’t” to a total of five policemen standing over her as witnesses lined along the balustrade overlooking the scene.
On Twitter, DJs scheduled to perform that weekend called the arrest “racist” (Umfang), an instance of “white supremacy” (DJ Haram). The location was described as one in which “police discriminate against POC” (Spree Wilson) with “Trump signs everywhere” (Venus X). It was “Trump country,” as Matthew Ismael Ruiz wrote in Pitchfork. Security guards at the resort had been overheard saying the night before the arrest that the festival was a “mistake” and would “never happen again” (FACT). People of color were “shaken down a lot more often and harder than everyone else,” reported a Boiler Room staffer to Pitchfork. “I overheard a security guard mocking a queer person of color Friday night,” he went on. “He made a limp wrist gesture behind the guy’s back as he walked through.”
The dramatization on Twitter seemed to inspire a newfound moralism for those who now “chose” not to attend. “I knew that shit was too good to be true,” tweeted Battyjack. Celestial Trax tweeted, “go to a corporate event moan about corporations,” and Akanbi tweeted, “say no to corporate bootleg rave extravaganzas.” A Twitter account known as Dance Bitch LLC tweeted “Wanted nothing to do with self-identified ‘resort rave’” to which Frankie Hutchinson of Discwoman tweeted, “Black folks were legit terrified because of police last night, so please stop patting yourself on the back for not attending BR this weekend” while Bearcat, scheduled to perform with Discwoman, tweeted “how dare ppl criticize us for working a corporate event! How the fuk do you think we eat? U just mad u not booked SHUT THE FUCK UP.”
The experiment had fallen apart. It was a tale of the times, at once emblematic of the Obama years that would end three days later, as abruptly as the Boiler Room livestream switched to black. In an official statement, Boiler Room condemned the actions of the hotel security and local police as “wildly inappropriate,” against Boiler Room’s intention to create a “safe, open, and inclusive environment” that “fosters understanding and inclusivity.” The festival had been carried out with such gusto that when it failed, and failed *so publicly, *critics were immediate to disassociate themselves from the project altogether. Here’s Michelle Lhooq in an interview on *Thump *asking Boiler Room’s US Senior Programmer, “Were there utopian ideals behind this? Would you rethink that model now?” and “What have you learned from this, and what would you have done differently?” as if chastising a child.
Utopian ideals. Rethink the model. The ideal and model could’ve easily referred to the compatibility between diversity and a representative democracy, a question that requires a considerable stretch of moral imagination that, when proven wrong, deeply embarrasses everyone involved.
What surfaced that weekend were two kinds of cameras telling two different stories: one of what America likes to see itself as and the other of what it actually is: a country where black people dominate the Top 40 Billboard charts, yet are simultaneously shot unarmed when pulled over by policemen whose homicidal racism is institutionally protected by our justice code as “self defense.” The arrest was something nobody saw coming until it was so obvious to have seemed inevitable in the year 2016, “avoidable” wrote John Twells in FACT, or “naïve” wrote Ezra Marcus in THUMP.
“Hopefully, Boiler Room have learned something here,” Twells goes on, though what exactly was to be learned isn’t quite clear, other than the grim realization that black performances matter more in this country than black lives themselves. On the outset, the Weekender was essentially a celebration of the times, the kind of conservative corporate-sponsored event that celebrates what has already happened rather than proposing change to come. It was a festival thrown not for the attendees, nor for the DJs invited, but for the social followers watching, tuning in on Facebook and Twitter where they’ve been algorithmically programmed to like this sort of thing, this sort of aesthetic. It was intended by Ray Ban and Boiler Room to “provide a space which amplified the music and the message of the artists and creative minds we work with,” which is either disingenuous or naive, though either way it doesn’t matter when everyone tuning into the livestream already agrees with the message on display. It was a demonstration in an echo chamber that Ray Ban and Boiler Room were on the right side of history, when in fact this would not be the case. “The critics,” ashamed for having promoted the event but who were now enlightened, divested themselves of ever believing in the project, when “the public” at large remained mostly silent. The Pennsylvania locals remained silent because their opinion wasn’t asked. If it had been, it might have exposed the very deepest insecurities of the New York underground. In three days’ time, that opinion would be declared with the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States. In the end, the Weekender would fade, as historical anomalies do, as a sign for dark times ahead, a cautionary tale about the contract between the self-congratulatory theater of the liberal elite, and the silent majority on the periphery who wanted them gone.