Nat Marcus

Sundial Theatre / Dancefloor Hourglass

This August, walking to the supermarket from my mom’s apartment under a sky parchment yellow in Montana, faint ash rain from the nearby forest fires, some guy asks me for a cigarette at the busstop. He seems a little addled, maybe meth, and we chat for a moment under the mountains. His name is Justin Himmelstrand, ‘Justice at the gates of heaven’, he says. He asks what I do at some point between long decantations of speech, decrypting all of culture since the Vietnam War. I told him I write, I’m a poet, and he asks if he could write something for me, then hands me the paper:

This rambler, this roamer, waiting at the bus stop and stranded on a stutter at the front edge his name, ‘the shores of heaven’, pretty much just read my outfit in his poem. Of course, a few years ago, when I thought I had reached my zenith or sartorial answer in a black tank top tucked into black running shorts, Under Armor spandex extending beyond the shorts to a bit above the knee – direly important is the white logo showing – black sheer knee socks, black New Balance sneakers, this sporty thing so straining to be black magic, I went out dancing and did the same to the people I saw: people who knew the ropes looked the part. Then I wrote about it. In doing so, I alienated myself as an observer and became implicated in the fashion as a creator of its document. Clothes are a signal of belonging; costume is a token of a scene. I thought text could envelope them both, cueing my entrance.

All along, maybe I saw in it less of a state of seemingly fresh being than an inroads to a theatre of community. Barthes is writing about a scene as in lovers making a scene at a restaurant, a spat. But the passage is just as applicable to the many-limbed groupthink inhabiting Berlin’s clubs every weekend. Undoubtedly, for ‘international youth’ such as myself moving to Berlin en masse, a noted rite of passage is the club spiral – and it sullies, it leaves a mark, the transformation towards which it drives is usually just weight loss and a growing dependence on speed, ketamine, or both. Sometimes people turn into G-demons, their pupils beginning to wear little masks made of cork. However, I’m thinking of the scene not as the sum total club content (music, drugs, synthetic fog), but the formal signage, the architecture that so ably fosters an interpersonal opera whose audience is also its ensemble. In and out of this edifice are cycled styles, resident DJs, fad drugs, BPMs, micro-generations of club kids with some elders hanging on (creepy grabby uncles, grandma’s palms leaden with blessings)—and never does it inch any closer to transcendence.

This August, I wore the same thing pretty much every day in Montana: white T-shirt, those beige Levi cutoffs, black Nike AF1’s. Clothes are as much a signal of belonging as of disaffiliation (I took my earrings out).

A few years ago, that first time in Berlin, when my face was a different shape and Zoe and I began working on our poetic TABLOID, and Obama was halfway through his second term, and The Store in the Soho House on Torstraße was a mere 3 months old, I was reading a collection of Paul Celan translations in Hasenheide. By the Hindu temple, before it was repainted. Some guy walks up to me, definitely not on meth, but addled, and starts speaking to me in German. I had stopped going to my language classes once I decidedly became a tart on the dancefloor that spring, and so he started speaking English. We talked about Celan for a second, and he said that the deep horror of those poems only came across in German (I shrugged; I cannot know what it’s like to read this poet sharing his tongue as my native one, but some of his poems are also walking listening softly observing, sensuous, Blume or Eine Hand. It was this register of Celan that I was reading in a meadow in Hasenheide on a Monday summer early evening after going out dancing the day before). Then he wrote this on a slip of paper and handed it to me:

People love the whole ‘going to church’ metaphor of partying on Sundays, lining up at heaven’s gates. With good reason though. After dancing for many hours to house tracks – which, no matter how bitchy, or textured and distended like Ricardo Villalobos does it, or Fred P’s dimensional gates, have their roots in gospel – and guzzling bottles of water, and nibbling one pill, I feel absolved and compassionate. A luxurious healing being outside one’s indexed self for some time, corseted with dopamine, truly making use of one’s hands and feet, the heart between them rapidly beating. Healing being so truly a we: the ego lays down, and I’m an identity without essences. It doesn’t even matter what I’m wearing then.

But truly how far does this first-person plurality extend? Is this even what’s healing about participation in the scene? Club mass is more like a bundle of actors in the background of a theatrical crowd scene (everyone’s an extra, everyone’s extra). We’re all in the blinding lights, sweating, costumed, gesturing for a revolution even if that just means a twirl. We know the directions, we know the ropes stringing up heaven’s bells, and the shutters open for a moment and everyone kind of hoots. Then we disband – not only as a crowd, a common being, but from the being-in-common of a shared platform. We do not leave a mark on the floor, we do not sully. The proscenium is wiped clean, and when the theatre’s empty, the ghost light is placed onstage, towards which moths flutter, maybe.

Now I often inhabit a different silhouette: baggy jeans airy below the knees, or just-oversized pants with an attuned measure of folds gathering at the shoes (still sneakers); still a tank top, often, but more recently cheap slips that I buy from a disconcerted lady at a shop on Müllerstraße. Thin straps. Tucked in. Default buzz-cut swapped for hair grown out, combed back with coconut oil. I’m not sure how much choice I had in the matter though: clothes are as much a signal of belonging to a scene as to a setting, a geotag and timestamp.

This summer, in Montana, I was listening to Lil Louis’ Club Lonely (1992) on loop.

Perhaps, before goth got healthy, before a flare sparked that lit up the dry juniper this August in Montana, before that amber evening sitting in Hasenheide reading Paul Celan, the stage was already empty, a ruin like the Michigan Theater in Detroit (now a parking lot). And even so, the scene existed, continued to exist, is existing without consequence.

Perhaps, before we were steeped in the rave-nostalgia of the 2010s, nostalgia was already an element ingrained in rave: choral, an orgasm, dancing, so meaninglessly good it’s already past as one’s experiencing it. One of the first releases of Underground Resistance, the crusading cell of Detroit techno, is called Your Time is Up (1990). They will go on to release anthems, and, along with producers and DJs from Chicago, reposition the Midwest of the United States as a genesis site for the club culture we know today. But before they even started, it was over, like last Sunday and the next.

The scene repeats with variations. Like fashion (because no doubt I will be wearing something different to the club in three years), and the casts of Broadway shows, the scene cycles. I’m already walking home from the U-Bahn on Monday morning, wearing tennis whites or sport mesh with the hands of my days in my pockets and softly observing, lonely as those wandering poets because I am no different, addled. Simultaneously I was and will be dancing, grin splitting open again, wholly engaged in a group enactment of the same divine comedy.

Words by Nat Marcus