It has been roughly two months now since the unthinkable happened: the city that never sleeps found itself in a veritable coma amid mass shutdowns aimed at preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
As people fled New York City and countless lives that once thrived on the crowded rituals of urban life were upended by the pandemic, America’s most populous and vibrant metropolis was drastically and perhaps permanently altered. The MTA emptied out, the bright lights of Times Square danced for no one, and the throngs of nocturnal creatures that propelled the working hours of the city around the clock were robbed of their sanctuaries.
It was almost inconceivable in January that the virus that had thrown China into a state of utter panic would ever overwhelm New York City. For many, the alarming early coverage of COVID-19 was simply another online spectacle depicting a catastrophe an ocean away. Six months ago, New York was alive as ever on New Year’s Eve with its usual flurry of raucous parties packed with people hopeful for a new year and a new decade. No one could have known what was coming.
One hundred years ago, America and the rest of the world were gripped by a different pandemic, the Spanish Flu, a virulent influenza virus estimated to have infected approximately 500 million people, a third of the world’s population at the time. From April of 1918 until December of 1920, the virus killed as many as 100 million people, with more people dead in 24 weeks than HIV/AIDS killed in 24 years. The virus came in three waves and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, created the most severe pandemic in history. After the postwar economic boom delivered Americans into a more prosperous era, the virus became a distant memory – until now.
Aquaria, April 23
Top health officials have predicted that COVID-19, much like the Spanish Flu, will come in waves, leaving Americans mired in perpetual uncertainty. For industries such as nightlife that thrive on crowds of people, the ultimatum is clear: adapt or die out. With the virus spreading rapidly worldwide, the internet is the last redoubt. Enter Susanne Bartsch. As downtown queer nightlife’s perennial maven and one of New York City’s most notorious party producers, Bartsch has taken to the internet to keep the rhythm going. This year’s season of On Top, Bartsch’s much-anticipated summer/fall party that usually takes place at the Standard Hotel in Chelsea, was relocated to Zoom, an online video conference platform where club kids and drag artists from all over the world have begun to use their aesthetic tastes to create an extradimensional cyber party under the auspices of Bartschland.
“People at The Standard don’t even know when they’re opening, and it’s already about to be June,”
“It’s devastating. It’s very uncertain, very, very uncertain.”
But party producers aren’t the only ones hurting in nightlife. By keeping the party online, DJs, hosts, and entertainers are given another opportunity to make money. Bartsch said her 2020 calendar has been completely wiped clean, an indicator of what so many others in the industry are probably facing as well.
“From Las Vegas to Vienna, I’ve lost every job there is,”
“Other than bringing together the community and supporting this nightlife community, it’s also to help and pay people so they’re able to buy food for the week.”
This week marks the online party’s seventh Thursday installment after its launch on April 16, and each week brings with it a different set of competitive look themes and a rotating cast of hosts, guest hosts, and entertainers. In addition to the usual staples such as glamour superstar Amanda Lepore, makeup mastermind Ryan Burke, downtown it girl Linux, performance art genius Thee Suburbia, burlesque bombshell Lola Von Rox, and a cast of other provocative personalities (Gottmik, CT Hedden, Jeffrey Scott, Kiss, Candy Warhol, Muffy, Chlamydia, Mateo Palacio, Adventure Dave, and Bob Bottle to name a few), Bartsch also books special guest talent that has already included RuPaul’s Drag Race stars Aquaria, Crystal Methyd, Detox, Nicky Doll née Karlize, Brooke Lynn Hytes, and LA trans idols Gigi Gorgeous and Love Bailey, among others. DJs have included crowd favorites such as Vito Fun, Mazurbate, Tom Peters, Ty Sunderland, Aquaria, Amber Valentine, Tommie Sunshine, and London party impresario Jodie Harsh. This week, Bartsch is adding Trinity the Tuck to the roster, which promises to make for an interesting evening.
Fashion photographer Steven Klein celebrating his Birthday, April 30
Though we are separated by distance together, the remote platform has given artists the opportunity to customize their virtual surroundings in a way that augments their sartorial and cosmetic looks. Bartsch’s parties have always served as a gallery space for artists to showcase work on their bodies, and now that space extends to their virtual presentation as well. Whether it be libertine displays of communal nudity or watching renowned fashion photographer Steven Klein blow out the candles on his birthday cake, each week has brought something fresh in what is quickly becoming a new global age of New York nightlife. There are still online after-parties. People still get high. DJ sets still guide the sonic tempo of the night. The events bring all the trappings of a regular party with none of the crowded congestion one might experience in the Le Bain bathroom (God bless it) during mid-May.
This may be the first online party of its kind – one that took an existing weekly party that became impossible in the face of the pandemic and preserved it in cyberspace, where for the first time anyone with an internet connection can attend from anywhere in the world. Queer nightlife is something special that needs to be preserved during these times of blinding uncertainty. In New York City, which became the pandemic’s epicenter in a meteoric contamination, nightlife will probably be facing a depression for some time to come, especially if the virus moves in unpredictable waves and makes event planning and coordination impossible.
Still we press on. Even though the NYC Pride Parade was cancelled this year, along with the gauntlet of regular Pride events, mark your calendars for June 28. Bartsch is planning an international online Pride party on Zoom titled “On Top of the World: Pride,” featuring a bevy of headliners such as Allie X and talent from cities all over the world, including New York, LA, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Berlin.
“I never even did a FaceTime call before all this,”
“I’m going all the way.”
These times are historic, and so the ways that we choose to party and continue to celebrate life will take on a historic significance as well. The relationship between party and partygoer will be more symbiotic than ever. The parties offer respite to those taking quarantine seriously and give glamorous people everywhere a continuing opportunity to show up and show out. In exchange, we have to keep logging in and supporting these endeavors. As we now know well, nothing is promised. But we can still fight for the right to party.