- Impossible Spaces:Kevin McCarty's The Chameleon Club
Located somewhere in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cow fields and suburban home developments, in between the ruins of downtown Dayton, Ohio, a postindustrial wasteland, and Wright-Patterson Air Force base, sat the Hills and Dales shopping center. In a retail space at the rear of a strip mall, the Chameleon Club opened. One entered what would have been the sales floor and made one's way back through a single doorway to the storeroom, which had been converted into a punk rock club. The only furnishings were a plywood stage at the far end, flanked by a PA. The dry walling was incomplete, leaving cinder blocks exposed. To the right of the stage was a doorway that led to 1470's, the largest gay bar in Dayton. When one paid admission to the Chameleon Club, one could buy drinks at 1470's. The punks passed back and forth, but no one from 1470's came to the Chameleon Club. With their costumes and their lyrics, the kids on the music scene performed their identities at the temporary venue. For the punks, geographic location was not relevant as long as there were a stage, a soundman, and an audience. Behind the bare cinder blocks of the Chameleon Club, one could hear the beat of dance music. The sweating bodies of intoxicated gay men crowded the dance floor, only to be revealed through the artificial fog by streaks of red, blue, and green lights circling above their heads. Here men forgot about the blue-collar oppressive city they called home and imagined a world where they could be free from shame and embarrassment. Neither place was mine. I observed both from the outside. My utopia existed at the doorway on the threshold—in neither space and in both spaces simultaneously. [End Page 427]
In the body of work The Chameleon Club, I attempt to describe the experience of existing on the edge of identification, the possibility of transformation, and the construction of utopia. The images represent empty stages at music clubs and gay clubs in Los Angeles. Each stage is lit as if a concert were about to happen. The only human presences are the marks of the people who have crossed the stage, and the debris they have left behind. Placing the viewer at eye level and centered on the stage, I want to isolate him or her as much as the stage.
In his photographic practice Kevin McCarty attempts to image utopia by examining the potential for utopian space. He is interested in depicting the both interconnected and impossible spaces of gay belonging and punk belonging. To this end, his lens, dedicated to the task of seeing what is not quite there, seeks to glimpse a utopian horizon. The visual evidence of McCarty's performance are haunting, technically beautiful pictures of some of queer and punk Los Angeles's empty stages that are most laden with potentiality: La Plaza, the Catch One, Spaceland, the Parlour Club, the Garage, and the Silver Lake Lounge.
To contextualize and introduce McCarty's work, I turn to an early moment in gay and lesbian studies. The anthology Lavender Culture contains a report about queer bars in Ohio. In a short piece titled "The Cleveland Bar Scene in the Forties," John Kelsey reports on the fundamental importance of these spaces: "There was, of course, nothing spectacular about Cleveland's gay male bars in the forties, but the point is simply this: they existed. Gay men had places to meet, not only in San Francisco or New York, but in a city easily scoffed at or ignored by sophisticates on either coast."1 Kelsey's account of the 1940s resonates powerfully next to McCarty's photographs. McCarty's impressions from the 1990s, fifty years after Kelsey's moment, probably still correspond with a point Kelsey makes about bars: "The curious combination of exploitation and liberation helped define the mood in gay bars then as it is now, though perhaps both elements were more extreme in those days."2 The calculus of exploitation and liberation dogs queer...