Club Seen shines a light on the artists, VJs, and designers providing a visual dimension to after-hours underground culture in urban China.
Glitter, sweat, and strobe-lit fog permeate the air as you enter Medusa, one of the most popular queer-centric dance parties in China.
To reach this point, you’ll have already passed an unusually long line of people, some of whom are wearing imaginative, gender-bending outfits to get past the door. Inside, flashing pink animations pulsate in time to a pounding bassline and the vocal stylings of co-founder Michael Cignarale — who is rarely seen at the party not covered in glitter himself.
Before the first Medusa party in summer 2016, both Cignarale and co-founder Sam “Mau Mau” Which observed a gaping void in Shanghai’s LGBTQ nightlife scene, which was restricted to either a handful of clubs that doled out exclusively EDM and Top 40 remixes or parties that were “gay friendly” but not necessarily gay-driven.
Today, Medusa sits pretty in a fabric of similarly gay- and music-driven sister parties, such as Dong Gong Xi Gong in Beijing — with whom they sometimes organize crossover events — and newer party HTTP in Shanghai, which focuses on a queer femme and non-binary audience.
Which, who is also co-founder of the Shanghai nightclub Elevator, is a “late blooming house and techno fanboy.” Cignarale’s tastes meanwhile were shaped by ’80s and ’90s-era DJs such as Larry Levan and Junior Vasquez — whose residencies at iconic New York City clubs Paradise Garage and Sound Factory would shape a generation of producers to come — as well as more contemporary selectors such as The Carry Nation (who Medusa brought as guest artists to Shanghai in 2018).
Though Cignarale is deliberate in selecting music for a modern audience — “retro is for the museums,” he quips — he says that as far as visuals were concerned “there was a need to clearly reference ‘90s-era New York City, and the power of the dance floor.”
In particular, he refers to the ubiquity of the handmade, sometimes hand-drawn, club flyers that were once wheat-pasted to walls and handed out on New York City streets. Once a vital source of underground party information throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, these flyers all but disappeared with the advent of the internet and social media.
A producer and singer as well as co-founder of a Shanghai-based design studio, Cignarale was careful about the message he wanted to convey with his visuals from the party’s advent. “I think there is nothing wrong with taking and running with an obvious answer; people want to plan their night with some sense of expectation,” says Cignarale. “So… pink! It’s such an iconic color for gay people and a perfect fit for Medusa. Since I knew every poster would be different, I wanted some throughline, like a color or graphic style that could make the whole party consistent and identifiable without the logo.
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The images dancing across Medusa’s posters and projections have evolved substantially over the years. While partygoers on the night were once treated to subversive (though, crucially, never explicit) animated collages featuring famous drag queens such as Divine and the homoerotic art of Tom of Finland — a sort of LGBTQ media history lesson, as it were — it has since become more abstract, featuring cheeky iconography drawn from a collective queer visual vocabulary. Steered by resident VJs NY and her partner Zhihao, the visuals employ “the same vocabulary of gay references” that shape the posters, parties, and music, coming together as “a collage of things that make queer people fabulous,” according to Cignarale.
“At the beginning, the style [was] still not too clear, so we just used a lot of [imagery from] RuPaul’s Drag Race,” says NY. “Then Michael sent me a pack of vintage gay porn. This changed everything.
“We realized that we can give audiences an orgasm just from the visuals.”
She adds that over time they tinted the visuals pink in keeping with the look and feel of the party, adding that “the pink lights give the magic touch — [the feeling] of a hot and sweaty dance floor.”
By then Medusa had become a persona in her own right, taking cues from popular parties such as A Club Called Rhonda based out of Los Angeles, which beckons partygoers as “Rhonda” to partake in queer dance culture with a bold, boisterous, yet unified voice.
In posts on social messaging platform WeChat, the party practically bellows: “MEDUSA IS BACK, blessed and ready to stuff those tender sized 46 feet into her finest cha cha heels for a night of unfathomable debauchery. TRANSPORT YOURSELF TO A PLACE WHERE FANTASY BECOMES REALITY AND REALITY GETS NASTY.”
“Medusa is supposed to be funny, and a little stupid, so [each party] revolves around finding some sort of gay inside joke or reference,” says Cignarale. This has trickled into glitter suggestively dribbling from outstretched palms and open mouths in several posters, a hand-drawn queen gorging on a hotdog for a party titled “Eating Out,” and the event’s yearly “Analversary.”
But there’s a pertinent seriousness to having a safe space for LGBTQ youth to let loose in China, who form an increasingly large and visible presence in the country’s first- and second-tier cities. Though on a national level, legal issues have seen a great push and pull over the past five years, events in these cities today largely occupy a gray area, neither protected nor necessarily interfered with on most nights.
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That’s not to say that there haven’t been obstacles for such events, either. The most common issues that organizers have encountered were on Chinese social platforms such as WeChat or streaming site BiliBili — a not unusual circumstance for underground events that make the crossover to “overground,” highly regulated platforms.
And by the time Elevator — which typically hosts Medusa — reopened in mid-2019 after an enforced relocation, its most popular party had begun omitting the “Pansexual Realness” tagline that had originally been emblazoned across the posters. This came as the party seemed to be moving away from more explicit incarnations, in order to bypass censors.
But Cignarale says that such stumbling blocks came when it was time to embrace new imagery anyway. “This party had created its own poly-gendered drag and voguing scene, and to be honest, it felt like our overtly masculine, sexual imagery was a little tired, and not as inclusive or reflective of our community,” he says.
“I’d rather relate the party to topics we can openly talk about, are inclusive, and don’t jeopardize our hard work or people’s ability to have fun.”
A far bigger concern for Cignarale is that as parties like Medusa garner a reputation among “squares” and passive observers, there is the inherent risk of gay culture and the gay underground becoming commodifed. “It becomes a spectacle and not something people understand in any meaningful way. So nothing really gets added, and you end up with a pretty derivative scene,” he observes. “But with that comes partygoers that will want to learn more, and will gravitate towards or create spaces that offer something living and growing, and [in turn] change the queer party landscape.”
Part of what has made Medusa so fun — and arguably so popular — is the ways in which it challenges people to participate as early as the doorway. In the early days, visitors would spin a wheel to “pay or play,” having glitter thrown in their face or kissing a stranger in order to forgo paying the entry fee. The party today still offers free entry for partygoers in drag, whatever the gender — creativity earns you added points. Says Cignarale:
“I’m just a facilitator. The real spirit of the party is what guests bring to it, and if you can bring out their inner fierce. So it must be rewarded and encouraged, hence free entry for queens — and don’t be trying to come in for free with just heels and lipstick. We want to see the fantasy.”
True to his and Which’s vision, the party has forged connections with a court of local queens and kings — some old hands, some performing drag for the first time — as well as a small but burgeoning vogueing scene in a time when shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race and Pose have captive audiences within the Chinese mainland.
This gives Cignarale hope that Medusa will help feed a healthy ecosystem of queer culture — bursting with lascivity, originality, and the inclusive spirit of China’s most populous city.
“Queer culture is vast. This is just me and Mau Mau’s point of view,” says Cignarale. “There’s just so much more to share.”
All images: courtesy Medusa
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