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On getting in: “One needs to study the look, prepare the body and stay cool under pressure.” (Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures, 1995.)

  • Jul 18 2022
  • Sanjana Varghese
    is a journalist, visual researcher and reporter in London. She writes around technology, conflict, migration and culture, and graduated from the Centre for Research Architecture in 2021.

There’s no such thing as a door policy. Like most policies, it’s a kind of shapeshifting checklist that hews along arbitrary lines. A good door policy is incoherent and almost entirely affective; drawn out of something as impossible to pin down as a ‘vibe’, it resembles what Studio 54 founder Steve Rubell used to call “a tossed salad” of people on the dancefloor. A door policy is a kind of unsexy mix between governance and something like a craft; as many scholars of the UK’s rave movements mention, those enforcing door policies were often called ‘door pickers’ because of how they sized  up individuals and enforced a kind of immutable hierarchy that could change from night to night.

Contemporary discussions of door policies tend to revolve around the uncomfortable existence of a cultural and social hierarchy that includes some while excluding most. In his book Clubbing, Ben Malbon conducted an ethnographic study of raving in London of the late nineties. Participants were asked to keep a journal in which they wrote down every trivial detail of the minutes spent in the queue to a club. Malbon noticed how when people are rejected, all they’d like is to be included, often voicing disdain at other patrons who haven’t been turned away. “The negotiations of the door”, Malbon wrote, “are indicative of the wider relationships and tensions between belongings and distinctions, identifications and exclusions, the cool and the ‘mainstream’ and inside(rs) and outside(rs) that have surfaced throughout this first stage of ‘The night out.’” Many of the young clubbers Malbon spoke to expressed their discontent at having been rejected, even though they ostensibly did everything right. That ‘tossed salad’ is inevitably just based on aesthetics; how can you know how uninhibited, rich or frankly, fun, someone will be when you size them up? You look at what they’re wearing, maybe even the way they carry themselves. Bouncers and pickers often look someone up and down before they say no, or begrudgingly let them come in. Anyone who has ever tried to get into a modish club with a moody door picker knows that you’re never as on display as you are in the minute while you’re being assessed. Obviously, that kind of assessment doesn’t stop when you actually get in - but it feels more like a jury of your peers, all of whom have had to go through the same process to be where you are now. Another way of thinking about these relations is considering what aesthetics are often shorthand for in spaces of such heightened visibility. That’s why designating the space of music as somewhere free from the kinds of socioeconomic stratifications that accompany all policies is naïve at best.

When you finally get that fated nod, it can be an affirmation of the identity that you’ve chosen to don for that night, so that moment after the door becomes a reification of decisions you’ve made. The door becomes a moment of self-recognition, but it’s also just kind of an ego boost. It’s a moment in which particulars of a chosen identity are used to unlock access to an environment that celebrates their visibility. Getting past that door is a chance to prove to others (and mostly, to yourself) that you do, in fact, deserve to be there, that a particular door picker was right to let you in. In Mark Leckey’s 1999 montage film Fiorucci made me hardcore, he follows groups of clubbers in the rave and on the street in broad daylight as they make their way around normal life. They move with abandon, eyes wide and limbs flailing, possessed by a frenzied energy. I watched them move and wondered, what are they dancing for? Then it hit me. They move with the knowledge that this - that mood, that atmosphere that is enforced by the door picker and carefully curated for them by the space they were in and the music they danced to, will have to be over soon. That makes getting in all the more urgent. 

The terms of references used when discussing door policies tend to circulate between a few given spaces: the commercial club where patrons pay thousands of pounds to stand around a table, or dance clubs where people ostensibly gather for the music and wear (on the whole) comfortable shoes. These are probably the most visible manifestations of door policies, since they underline how a ‘door’ policy is also kind of a misnomer. In some cases, a ‘door policy’ starts far before the door. Other kinds of performance spaces, such as the classical concert hall or the opera house, have door policies that are disguised as the price of a ticket. Consider the opera hall and its price of admission that excludes people from raced and classed backgrounds. Its seats that cost more not only offer better views and sound, but a spatial barrier from those who aren’t always seen as the target audience. Another example is the Royal Opera House in London: they encourage people to come wearing whatever they’d like, but the £11 ticket holder will be tucked in the back, while those who invested £182 will be awarded a prime spot. Inclusion is often held up as the end goal of these efforts, but sometimes it’s better to just go to another venue.

A good, queer club down the road from where I live has gotten more expensive and started to ask people on the door who’s playing the night on which they hope to frequent it. There is a scarcity of quality places to go out to where I live in East London. That’s probably why this particular club has a long line snaking way past the entrance of the Turkish restaurant next door. Coincidentally, the restaurant often begins to close its doors just as the first revelers begin to be rejected from the doors of its neighboring business. I’m sure that makes some people try harder; some clubs (including an infamous example that’s too obvious to name) have such strict door policies that even getting past it once is a badge of honor (as is being rejected). When I told a few friends about this recently, some of them laughed while others nodded their heads solemnly, reminding me that too many straight people are treating the club like any other club (somewhere just for fun, where you could be openly heterosexual, with no political stakes) as opposed to something that could very, very loosely call itself a community. I’m not sure I agree with their assessment, but I’m not opposed to a good door policy. Anyone who’s ever come out with me knows that I spend half of my time telling people how I wish they’d let less people in. Queer clubs and nights at pubs often cite the importance of their strict door policies for producing an atmosphere conducive to their free expression and hedonism. The guidelines for a number of local sex parties make it clear that all attendees must come in scene-appropriate attire; often involving latex, lace, mesh or other kink-friendly items. A friend who goes to those parties pointed out that it’s expensive but worthwhile; even the price of a few of those items can go some way towards providing a space for experimentation or hedonism that few find in other circles. 

In the opening scene of the 1998 cult horror film Blade, two beautiful young people walk down a fluorescently lit hallway late at night. The woman, Racquel, says a password to an impassive bouncer who lets the two of them into a pulsating rave (soundtracked by a seminal remix of New Order’s “Confusion”). The young man starts to push his way through; disoriented by the throngs of people moving around him, looking at him with hungry eyes. A few drops of blood begin to fall from the ceiling, as it dawns on the poor human that he’s at a bloodbath orgy for vampires. The ravers around him begin to advance, teeth bared, soaked in blood. Sometimes it’s better not to get in. 


Banner:Michael Pellew, Prince, 2018, paint and glitter on wood, courtesy of Western Exhibitions

This Contribution was released with the support of Rudolf Augstein Stiftung, Bundesverband Soziokultur, Neustarthilfe, Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien.



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