Friday, May 24, 2013

Nightclub Fires: 2013 and 1970 (with reflections by Guy Debord)

Santa Maria, Brazil, 2013

'Sixteen people will face criminal charges in connection with a deadly fire at a Brazil nightclub in January. More than 240 people were killed when insulation foam caught fire and spread toxic fumes through the packed venue in the southern town of Santa Maria. Police said the blaze started when the singer of a band held a firework close to the ceiling, which then caught fire. The singer, the band's producer, the club's owners, and fire officials will be charged with negligent homicide. A police report published on Friday said dozens of eyewitnesses reported seeing the singer on stage holding the firework which triggered the blaze. Attempts by the singer and a security guard to extinguish the fire failed when the extinguisher they used did not work, the witnesses described.

Many said that the security guards at the Kiss nightclub at first tried to stop people from leaving the club. The fact that the club only had one door was described by the investigators compiling the report as a "grotesque safety failure". Escape routes and lighting in the club were also found to be inadequate. The club was found to be overcrowded. Eyewitnesses reporting more than 1,000 revellers packed into the venue, which had a licence for fewer than 800. All of the 241 victims were found to have died of asphyxiation as toxic fumes from the insulation foam quickly spread through the club. Police believe that five of those killed were people who had gone into the club to try to rescue others. More than 600 people were injured' (BBC News, 22 March 2013).

Thousands pause outside the Kiss nightlub in Santa Maria on a march after the fire

St Laurent du Pont, France, 1970

'A fire at a nightclub in France has killed 142 people, most of them teenagers. The club, a mile from the town of St Laurent du Pont, near Grenoble, was packed with revellers when the fire started at around 0145 local time (0045 GMT). A fire department spokesman said the partly-wooden building "went up like a box of matches" and the victims perished within 10 minutes. Many of the interior fittings, including the ceiling, were flammable, the spokesman said, but many people might have escaped from the Club Cinq-Sept had emergency exits not been blocked. Firefighters found bodies piled five deep around the exits which had been padlocked and barred with planks to keep out gatecrashers.

It is believed some dancers were trampled to death in a stampede as people rushed to get out of the dance hall through the main entrance. Only 60 of the 180 people in the building are believed to have escaped - many of them are in hospital with up to 90% burns. Herve Bozonnet, who got out virtually unscathed, said: "It was ghastly. People on the dance floor were engulfed by burning plastic from the ceiling." Another survivor, 17-year-old Dominique Guette, said: "We tried to break down emergency exits but it was impossible." (BBC News, 1 November 1970)

Guy Debord on the Saint Saint-Laurent-du-Pont Fire

'The instantaneous incineration of the dance club in Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, in which 146 people were burned alive on 1 November 1970, certainly aroused strong emotions in France, but the very nature of these emotions has been poorly analyzed, then and now, by many commentators. Of course, the incompetence of the authorities concerning security instruction has been revealed: these instructions are well conceived and minutely spelled out, but making them respected is quite another matter because, effectively applied, they more or less seriously interfere with the realization of profits, that is to say, the exclusive goal of capitalist enterprises in both their places of production and the diverse factories in which diversions are distributed or consumed. The dangerous character of modern [building] materials and the propensity for horrible decor to become the decor of horror have already been noted: "One knows that the polyester ceilings, the use of plastic covering on the walls and the inflatable seats burned like straw and cut off the retreat of the dancers, who were surprised in their race against death" (Le Figaro, 2 November 1970). 

 .... many people have been sensitive to the particular horror of exit denied to all those who flee, already on fire or close to it, by a barrier specially created to only open towards the interior and to close again after the passage of each individual: it is a question of avoiding the situation in which someone might enter without paying. The slogan on the signs carried by the parents of the victims a month later - "They paid to enter, they should have been able to leave" - seems to be obvious in human terms, but it is fitting to not forget that this is not obvious from the point of view of political economy, and the difference between these two projects is only and simply knowing which one will be the strongest. Indeed, to enter and to paid is the absolute necessity of the market system; this is the only necessity that it wants and the only one that preoccupies it. To enter without paying is to put the market system to death. To enjoy oneself (or not) on the inside of the air-conditioned trap, to possibly leave it - all this has no importance for it, nor even any reality. At Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, the insecurity of the people was only the slightly undesirable by-product - the nearly negligible cost - of the security of the commodity...'

Originally written in 1971, for publication in the 13th (never published) issue of Internationale Situationniste. Translated by NOT BORED!

See also: 2009 fire in Perm, Russia; 2008 Shenzhen fire, China/2004 Buenos Aires fire

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Shimmy on Down

A new low in corporate clubbing at the Shimmy club in Glasgow, where women have complained about a two way mirror looking in to the women's toilets which groups of men can pay to view from an adjoining function room:

'Allegations that a nightclub in Glasgow has secretly fitted a two-way mirror to allow male guests to spy on the women's toilets "as a bit of fun" are being investigated by police and council licensing officers.Glasgow city council said it had received complaints that the Shimmy nightclub had installed a spy mirror – without warning female guests – between the toilets and a function room that was allegedly rented to private parties for £800.

A customer at the club called Amy told the Guardian she was warned about the two-way mirror by another customer when she visited Shimmy's recently to celebrate her birthday. Distressed, she left the toilet, and noticed that people in the club's main room could glimpse inside the toilets. The main view into the women's toilets was from private booths that were immediately adjacent to the mirror, she said. "It was booked out by all boys and they were up against the mirror and making gestures up against the mirror."

Amy complained directly to G1 Group, owner of the recently relaunched club in central Glasgow, saying it was "absolutely outrageous" that women customers were having their privacy invaded, allowing men to "leer disgustingly" at them. "Nowhere is it made clear that this is the case, so when visiting the bathroom for the first time, there are women bending over the sink, pouting into the mirror to redo their lipstick, adjusting themselves personally whilst unknowingly being watched by people on the other side," she said."What is even more vulgar is that the toilets face on to a private booth that can be booked out to specifically leer into the girls' bathrooms whilst the girls are unaware that they are being watched." (Guardian, 21 May 2013)

The G1 Group PLC 'founded by Managing Director, Stefan King' claims to be 'the most dynamic and forward thinking bar, restaurant, hotel, cinema and nightclub group in Scotland... currently operating 40+ venues across Scotland'. Not just The Shimmy  but G1 as a whole is facing a fierce backlash from women in Scotland. Existence is Futile on tumblr says: 'I urge you all to avoid/boycott ‘The Shimmy Club’ in Royal Exchange, Glasgow as they have a non-advertised two way mirror in the female toilets. This type of sexist exploitation of women has no place in Glasgow, let alone no place in 2013. The sexual objectification of the female club goers is utterly disgusting... Not only clubs/pubs and restaurants they also own The Grosvenor Cinema. I had a look to see exactly how many venues they own in Scotland and I was very surprised. Definitely making a note of them and boycotting every single one'.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Nightclubs: from the Aristocracy of the Fabulous to the Decorative Dance Floor

'Once upon a time New York nightclubs catered to the aristocracy of the fabulous, to those with the looks, the style, or the connections to gain admittance to the world of the night. That all changed with the invention of bottle service. Buy a table for some astronomical sum, and mere money will admit you to this world which once excluded the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, with their real jobs and neat suits. Sucking the credit cards out of their wallets became the main game, and the nightclubs became big business. Nightclubs ceased producing their own kind of celebrity, and became dependent on attracting the sports and entertainment stars of their day. The nightclub became, in other words, just an enterprise dependent upon the spectacular, rather than one of its prime engines of efflorescence.

The game became one of attracting celebrities, who might in turn attract the bankers and hedge fund men for the VIP rooms. The general admission crowd down on the dance floor would be largely for decoration, The kinds of mixing of the classes that both troubled and thrilled Manet’s contemporaries* will now be carefully vetted. Managing such intercourse calls into being new kinds of labor. Rachel Uchitel was a VIP concierge director. She was an ambassador of client desire, making sure the big names and big spenders came to her club and kept on coming.... one of the roles of a VIP concierge director is to introduce people who matter to women they may find attractive. “It’s not our job to get anybody laid,” Uchitel insists. But it was her job to populate the VIP rooms with women as attractive as they are discreet. Models, perhaps. Or almost-models. And it is the job of club promoters to bring these almost-models in. The contemporary nightclub, in other words, is a sophisticated machine for the highly selective mingling of money and sex. Or perhaps just the promise of sex, and sometimes just the promise of money. Whether the girls put out or the boys shell out is none of the club’s concern’

*Wark is discussing here Manet’s depictions of 19th century café-concerts, ‘the beginnings of a spectacular industry that has since been perfected. Now that the threat of the dangerous classes seems half a world away, at least from a New York nightclub, the danger to guard against is not that the rabble might reject the desires on offer, but that it might rather embrace them with too much gusto. Leisure, sex and suburbia are no longer marginal sites within which new kinds of spectacular economy grow. They are the very center and essence of that spectacular economy'.

The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passages out of the Twentieth Century by McKenzie Wark (Verso, 2013)

Studio 54, New York - a 1970s example of glamorous clubbers as celebrity bait?
[I think everyone will recognise this as one tendency - but not sure that it is something that has replaced all other forms of nightlife, or that it is new. I distinctly recall the horror I felt when VIP rooms became a thing in 1990s London clubs like the Ministry of Sound, something that seemed to totally contradict the egalitarian feeling on the floor. But there was always too a sense that those hidden in their VIP suites were actually missing the real experience. And celebrities 'slumming it' in 'lower class' clubs - and the management of these clubs catering for their wealth - goes back at least as far as the jazz clubs of the 1930s in New York, London and elsewhere]