Spencer Sweeney"It’s like that moment when you can feel the roller-coaster lift off the tracks, right before it goes down. That’s inherent in any act of creation."
Interview by Asher Penn
Self-Portrait by Spencer Sweeney
Self-Portrait by Spencer Sweeney
Didn’t your nightclub Santos start that year? Was there a connection?
Passerby closed while we were doing construction on Santos. I had become involved in this party at the Hole, which was a gay dive bar. That was just the ultimate party. I went in one early evening, and the place was empty except for a Puerto Rican tranny, a Hasidic Jew and a paraplegic guy in a wheelchair at the bar. I was like, “this is the place.” I quit at one point, and that’s when I had the idea to look around to open up a space.
Was Santos your idea?
My friend Larry had managed a bunch of clubs, and I said, what if we try to open our own spot? We started riding our bikes around to look for locations.
How old were you?
I was in my late 20's.
So, you guys started riding bikes around, checking out spots and you just rolled up on 100 Lafayette?
Larry had met this architect who had done some work for one of the partners in a club and he knew people with spaces. The landlord was a music fan. He was a realty lawyer who was in a Chinese country music band! he landlord respected what the architect was doing with his various projects, and said “let’s do a balls out nightclub.”
It sounds like the place chose you.
Yeah, it was like that. I was thinking of something like the Hole. All of a sudden, we had this huge space. I was like, here we go.
What about your partner?
It was bigger than any club that he had been involved with, but he saw potential. At first I thought, there’s no way I’m gonna be held responsible for filling this place every night. He told me not to worry and we started rolling.
Were you involved on the business end, or were you more on the creative end of building a brand identity?
I would say I had equal involvement in both of those aspects of the club. The business model was all theoretical; we hadn’t tried it yet. So, when the construction was done and the sound system was installed, it was almost like being handed the keys to a nuclear reactor with the instructions... "Okay Go!" It was crazy.
What’s the story with the sound system there?
Jim Toth designed it, his approach was maximum coverage with speakers: That’s why the place is lined with speakers like that. What happens is there is this full immersion of sound. The only other place that has a sound system of a similar design is a place in Tokyo called AgeHa.
What were the goals with Santos?
The shared vision of the group was to be able to host an as eclectic program as possible. The inspiration is a model of New York City, in a way. We wanted to have what goes on culturally here take place within this space, over the course of the week, with wildly diverse programming. That’s what we were really excited about. And the best sound system that we could possibly build.
The programming there is really different from any other club in NY.
It wasn’t an easy route, either, because it’s not the most marketable approach. I think that we achieved it. We have huge hip hop concerts, big gay parties, and metal shows. Along with pretty much everything in between that I can imagine. It’s still happening, and it’s getting better.
How did you guys decide to call it Santos?
At the time, all of the nightclubs had annoying names like Milk, Vinyl, Sugar, or Butter. I wanted a drastic departure from those names. Even something absurd, something with an almost Dada absurdist sound. I wanted to find the most un-nightclub name that I could get to. I suggested Santa Claus and Andrew was like, “Santa’s Party House!”
Did you draw the skeleton Santa?
Andrew devised the character. He’s a very talented draftsman. It’s his drawing. We had a session on the phone where we threw out ideas for how the Santa would look. We came up with sunglasses and skeleton legs. Andrew did a tight, clean illustration of the logo, and cleaned it up on the computer and it was good to go.
So throughout all this, you’ve been painting and doing shows. How has your work changed?
It’s a natural progression. I have many interests. I was very interested in pulling a lot of different things together stylistically. I was also really influenced by Picabia and how he would jump from style to style. He was a chameleon. I was really into these shape shifters.
Kinda like Kippenberger.
Yeah, he was always drawing together really divergent styles. That was his thing. But he did have a style at the same time, right?
Well, so do you.
That’s the thing. Style is inescapable because we all have a soul, we all have a creative spirit with its own voice. At a certain age, I became very engaged with the idea of rigorously and painfully pulling together divergent styles and ideals. It’s hard to do that, but I saw it as an exercise. Lately, I’ve warmed up to the intuitive part of you, what actually comes out of your subconscious, and letting that go. I’m no longer interested in jamming different styles together and seeing what kind of explosion happens. Now, I let it happen naturally. When you look at a blank space there's a very natural impulsive understanding of how to fill it. I’m not so much concerned with wrangling different styles and putting them together.
Is that visible in your self-portraits? They seem intuitive.
That started to help bring that out. I was less concerned with this synthesis of different styles coming together at that point. I let that come out in a very natural way. When you really get into it, you’re letting everything go, nothing could happen more perfectly.
What’s the story with the Santos Paintings?
I used to collect fliers off the light posts in the city when I went to punk shows as a kid. I still have the collection: Pettibon, Pushead, lots of great unknowns and lots of great punk shows I was also interested in William Blake’s illuminated scriptures and Toulouse-Lautrec.
So the Santos Paintings are a combination of all these elements?
It’s all over the place. At first, I thought it was going to be a lot easier because there’s an immediacy to it, because you have to get out a message. You have to pass on this piece of information a day at a time. Sometimes they’re the hardest things.
I like that they are a real snapshot of a moment.
Yeah, it’s cool that there’s a function to them in that way. That was part of what was so exciting about doing them. I couldn’t believe these people were playing at the fucking club. I felt I had to do something about it.
What was the first one?
The first party painting came out of the second part of this Rock Opera. When I did an engagement at VeneKlasen and Werner in Berlin three years ago, We had a couple of nights of performance, and Bruno S. came to perform. I did a painting to announce that he was performing at the gallery, and that was the first time I did a painting to advertise a party. We wanted to get the word out.
Didn’t you do the first rock opera at Gavin Brown?
Yes Gavin, who has always been a huge supporter of the club and w/ out him there would probably be no club, calls me outta no where and asks me if I want to do a show.I said sure, and then he tells me it's next month!
I didn’t want it to be just paintings, or a sculpture, or an art object in a room. A rock opera came into my mind. I built a space, a little studio and a little stage. We’d start to rehearse on a piece of amateur, experimental theatre, and I’d use it as an art studio as well.
Why a Rock Opera?
Rock opera seemed really wrong at the time, and henceforth just the right thing. Rock operas were Tommy, or Rent. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Matt and Brain from TV Baby came up with the theme—it was about a person who was born in a television factory and then fell in love with a laptop. The internet was a character, played by Jesse Gold. There were a few musical numbers involved and some romance, and there was a sex scene where Matt made love to the laptop on the stage. Everyone made their own costumes and it turned out fantastic.
Your last show Gavin Brown show had a sauna built into it.
I injured my back really badly jumping off of something really high. When I landed and I had compressed a disc in my back. I was in a lot of pain. There had to be something therapeutic about the project, so we built a sauna at Michael Werner Gallery in Berlin where I was working on performances. That was the first sauna. We were getting really into Egyptology and themes from Ancient Egypt. We wanted to work that into the opera. The sauna was decorated with glyphs, we had a winged disk and Horace. Then, when Gavin’s show happened, we knew we had to do another sauna. This one had The Pharaoh’s Lounge. We built a section up top with pillows and a hookah.
It sounds like fun.
It’s fun, but it’s chancy. It’s a little bit scary when you’re engaged with what actually has to be done, physically, and the logistics of doing everything. At that point sometimes you don’t want to do it. That’s the feeling that you come across, embarking upon any kind of creative output. You hit that wall where you don’t know what you’re doing anymore. That’s when you have to push through and have that leap of faith. All you have is some vague notion that maybe you’ll end up with something on the other side.
It sounds like you’re swinging from vines.
Yes, exactly. It’s like that moment when you can feel the roller-coaster lift off the tracks, right before it goes down. That’s inherent in any act of creation. Let's take the creation of the universe...there was an explosion, its still expanding... and we’re all part of this creative process. When you create, you’re bringing some spirit out of you to manifest itself physically. It can be a pretty fucked up feeling at times, but I think it's what we are here for.
1 2From Sex Magazine #3 Spring 2013