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Party/Afterparty: Carl Craig and the Politics of Isolation

Two weeks ago, I took a much-needed excursion from Brooklyn to Beacon, NY. Aside from a quaint town center riddled with antique stores and boutiques for couture dog clothing, Beacon is home to Dia:Beacon, an art gallery whose large space makes it ideal for pieces that could not exist anywhere else. When I say large, I do mean massive; as a former Nabisco box-printing factory, the spaces of Dia:Beacon evoke images of industrial machinery the size of buildings, big enough to service the needs of multinational corporations. Wisely, the curators sought out an artist who could maximize the effect that such a scale might have on visitors, veteran electronic music producer Carl Craig. His piece, Party/Afterparty, was commissioned in 2019, so he could not have anticipated the degree to which the Covid-19 pandemic would augment its impact; as it stands, Party/Afterparty brilliantly conveys the way in which isolation is experienced, quarantine or no: in the dark, with only fleeting acknowledgment of its place in a broader social structure. This conception of individual mental health has ramifications that are important to consider as we rebuild; it is imperative that we put more focus on community spaces and modes of treatment.

The first thing one notices is the volume. Even if you were viewing sculptures on the first floor of the gallery, you could sense the rumble of bass beneath your feet, loud enough to vibrate concrete. Approaching the stairs down to the basement (nearly the entirety of which is dedicated to Craig’s piece), the dull rumble expands into a full bodied drone, buzzing and hissing in high definition. You descend the stairs into pitch blackness. Eventually, 12-foot bars of LED lights placed in the corners reveal a room the size of a football field held aloft by dozens of colossal concrete columns, housing nothing but the aforementioned lights and strategically placed speakers. Technically speaking, there are at least 8-10 channels of sound occurring, as opposed to the common 2 channels one hears in stereo sound. Moving through the space, one senses that the most active sound is occurring in the center of the room; this is verified when a spotlight shines directly down from the ceiling to an inconspicuous ‘X’ of electrical tape on the floor, sporadically illuminating – as it flickers on and off every few seconds – a ring of hung speakers also aiming at the X. Therefore, if you wanted to be the gallery patron to stand on the X, you could, for a time, be the epicenter of the piece. However, you may feel the darkness afterwards more acutely than before. Following the drone, the music segues into what one could consider the ambient techno genre: clipped female vocals, ethereal synthesizer pads, and multilayered percussive elements. As the music progresses and the light bars in the corners change color, suddenly windows to the outside world are revealed by automated shutters [I couldn’t help but be reminded of 80s horror classic Fright Night, in which – spoiler alert – the final bad guy (a vampire) is felled by sunlight when stones puncture his UV-blocking windows]. Rather than liberation, it feels like a cruel interruption. The shutters close, the evolving rhythm of the music recedes, and the piece descends back into the drone/darkness.


In his artist’s statement on Party/Afterparty Craig states: “The work itself is a reflection of my reality—the visual, sonic, and emotional connections or disconnections that I have experienced over the past thirty years as a DJ on the road. In contrast to the glamorous perception of the touring musician, I wanted to reflect the isolation of the many hours spent alone in hotel rooms" (Dia Art Foundation, 2020). Being emotionally disconnected in small spaces is a feeling many can empathize with right now. As discussed in my post on self care, isolation paired with reduced access to mental health care is precipitating a secondary pandemic of depression and anxiety. But what is our common understanding of these conditions, and how could this perspective be making isolation worse? It is common in mental health to refer to the “biopsychosocial” triumvirate, as they affect the individual: the biological (genetics and cognitive functioning); the psychological (patterns of thought, history of trauma, etc.); and the social (the way in which the individual interfaces with peers and communities big and small). Covid-19 has brought into sharp relief the degree to which psychological language has long undervalued the social elements of mental health, not just in terms of our need to share physical space with friends or loved ones, but in how broader structures such as economy and government are at least as impactful on individuals’ minds as their genetics or the way in which they think about their direct experience. When this influence of the outside world isn’t acknowledged, the onus for improving one’s mental condition falls on the individual alone – much the same as Americans are told to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to achieve financial stability – and they alone experience the exacerbating effects of failure when this isn’t achieved.


There has been some effort at incorporating social influence – most frequently life under capitalism – into discussions of psychology. Noted psychologist Eric Fromm’s theory of the individual focuses on how lack of meaningful work or freedom of creativity suppress our ability to escape loneliness and alienation. British psychologist David Smail has written extensively on how environmental factors and our power over them hold the biggest sway over mental health. He writes: “significant change comes about as the result of shifts in the pattern of environmental influence, not because of the individual’s personal wishes or efforts. The extent to which you can alter your ‘self’ will depend upon the powers available to you to alter your world.” Political thinker and cultural critic Mark Fisher, who tragically lost his life to depression, frequently wrote about how capitalism works to atomize people into units of labor and consumption: “The privatisation of stress is a perfect capture system, elegant in its brutal efficiency. Capital makes the worker ill, and then multinational pharmaceutical companies sell them drugs to make them better. The social and political causation of distress is neatly sidestepped at the same time as discontent is individualised and interiorised.” These are strong arguments for a politically radical reimagining of psychology that may seem to disempower those seeking to improve their mental health. However, these writers also argue for a commensurately radical approach to treatment, that of community spaces and social solidarity.


Carl Craig is from Detroit, which was at various points the epicenter for electronic music and American industry; this was not just a coincidence. Drawing from the robotic autobahn of Kraftwerk, the pioneers of techno – people of color – incorporated mechanization and repetition (mirroring the sound of factories) towards a vision of the future in which humans utilize technology to improve civilization. Their use of the latest innovations in musical instruments to create something alien-sounding to dance to is a perfect encapsulation of Fromm’s image of the fulfilled human mentioned above. Yet this music may not have taken off the way it did without the spaces in which to play it. Reimagining industrial spaces as dance clubs was another way to push back against the depression and isolation that Detroit and its residents experienced in the decline of the auto industry. This is another reason why Party/Afterparty is so effective: it recreates the aesthetic of hearing loud music in an abandoned factory, but it leaves out the catharsis of collective enjoyment. The shutters to the world fly open, not as the culmination of a night well-lived, but as a stark reminder of the emptiness around you, before plunging you back into the dark.


With fewer and fewer publicly available spaces available for communal expression and socialization (made so much worse by Covid), it is extremely difficult to avoid loneliness. Fisher writes: “The privatisation of stress has been part of a project that has aimed at an almost total destruction of the concept of the public – the very thing upon which psychic well-being fundamentally depends. What we urgently need is a new politics of mental health organised around the problem of public space.” Due to our myopic view of mental illness as purely interior, the lack of public spaces is not considered the health risk that it is. As we try to transition back into a more social mode of existence, it is crucial to have community-oriented spaces in which to heal the brutal effects of isolation that many have experienced over the past year.

In my music therapy studies, I was lucky enough to do my clinical internship at an outpatient clinic that utilized a community treatment model. The participants had been through the inpatient system at one point or another, and were able to maintain treatment while finding their way in the world. They had individual therapists, access to music groups (drumming, music listening, guided meditation, etc.), and perhaps most significantly, monthly concerts where they could perform whatever they wanted for members of the larger community. Though these people were dealing with their own individual challenges, the monthly events allowed for a mutual enjoyment of expression, and liberation from the disconnect between their circumstances and the world at large. These types of spaces are severely underfunded, and that is for people with concrete histories of psychosis. It is hard to imagine our government paying attention to widespread isolation and depression, as they dragged their feet on a deadly viral pandemic. Perhaps the first steps are to begin to incorporate environmental and social causation in our discussions of mental health, to not put all responsibility for change and improvement on the individual. Because the relationship of our minds to the world should no longer be gleaned from brief, flickering lights of attention. The urgency of the current moment to combat isolation with communal solidarity has never been greater; one should not feel alone in navigating mental illness during such a challenging time to be alive.


Sources:


McCready, John. “Techno: Detroit's Music of the Future – a Classic Feature from the Vaults.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 30 Apr. 2014,


Matthews, David. “Capitalism and Mental Health.” Monthly Review, 2019, pp. 49–62., doi:10.14452/mr-070-08-2019-01_5.


“New Immersive Sound Installation by Carl Craig Opening at Dia:Beacon on March 6, 2020.” Dia Art Foundation, www.diaart.org/about/press/new-immersive-sound-installation-by-carl-craig-opening-at-diabeacon-on-march-6-2020/type/text.


“The Privatisation of Stress.” K-Punk: the Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), by Mark Fisher et al., Repeater, 2018.


“A Societal Perspective.” Power, Interest and Psychology: Elements of a Social Materialist Understanding of Distress, by D. J. Smail, PCCS Books, 2016.

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