A Photo Journey Through Italy's Abandoned Nightclubs
Discotex, a new documentary project, offers an audiovisual glimpse into the cathedrals from the glory days of Italian vinyl.
This article originally appeared on Noisey Italy.
Today, all that remains of the disco mania that characterized Italy during the 80s and 90s is a vague sense of nostalgia; the hyper-connectivity of social media makes every space essentially the same macro-space (i.e., the internet). But back then, walking into an Italian nightclub was like stepping into a temple of musical escapism—a black hole in which society as you knew it disappeared, and you were able to lose yourself for a night or even an entire weekend, completely removed from "the real world."
Music by Miami Mais
Discotex—a combination of the word " discotheque" and the neologism "urbex," which refers to the exploration of abandoned and/or ruined urban structures—is a project by Domenica Melillo, a recent grad from the Academy of Fine Arts in Naples.
What started out as Melillo's thesis evolved into a documentary journey that lasted for nine months, trekking across the entirety of Italy in search of abandoned nightclubs that were popular during the vinyl years. From northern cities like Turin, Milan, and Reggio Emilia, to Formia, along the Mediterranean coast, and Avellino in the south, Melillo and her team discovered some of the country's most beloved old-school haunts: the Ultimo Impero, CafèSolaire, the Marabù , 7Up, and the East Side. What they found was that the social evolution of entertainment has transformed these immense edifices of cement into desolate eco-monstrosities. These gigantic musical amusement parks closed for a number of reasons—some buildings were straight up unauthorized, others violated tax codes, safety standards, illegal drug use, or simply couldn't keep up with the changing mentality of the public.
But if you listen closely enough when you're nearby, you can almost still feel the rumble of the bass that once resonated within each building. Melillo took photographs of each club and ran the images through Audiopaint, a software program that converts metadata into audio. It uses visual information to generate a sonar frequency by adjusting different variables—color and pixels; tempo and limiting frequency, for example. In order to replicate the exact reverberations and sound quality for each individual space, Melillo set the minimum frequency to 20 hertz, the lowest audible one; the maximum corresponds to the date each club closed. The end result was a series of varied explosions of sound—noises that, Melillo confessed, "were surprisingly very close to the noises I heard inside each abandoned disco. Everything was groaning."
When I asked where she first got the idea for the project, she responded, "I'd wanted to create an exhibit for the blind for years. Because of an ugly childhood experience, I've always felt very close to the visually impaired. I've had a passion for photography and fine art since [I was a teenager] and I realized how fundamental my eyes were to me. So, I always asked myself how I might manage to show my photos to those who can't use their eyes—the only way was to make my photographs speak. I was never able to actualize an [art] exhibit for the blind, but once the problem [became apparent] to me, I [started thinking about] alternate perspectives."
In a way, Discotex is concerned with the celebration of decadence, a thing that, according to her, is "one of the things that art must do: [it must] reevaluate a place, an object, and the feelings related to it."
"I've never [actually] been to a discotheque," she admitted. "For me, they were non-spaces first and foremost. But through the Facebook group 'Memories on a Dancefloor'—which I updated in order to document my journey—I understood that [association] was mine [and mine] alone. It was entirely personal, because [beyond it] there's a community of people who frequented these meeting places, and [even] right now they're mourning them like crazy."
While it may have seemed to others like a high-class field fueled by a girlish spirit of discovery, Melillo's adventure was actually much more difficult than she'd originally expected. "I was delusional and believed I could do the documentary work myself, and the videos were a major problem. I couldn't afford a team, so I had to rely on non-professionals. The takes were bad at the very least. We were often in total darkness. We had a flashlight with us, but it wasn't that helpful—the beam didn't bring [enough] focus to the darkness. I'll admit it: [we shot] at random most of the time. There was almost never an opportunity to take an artistic photo, because you couldn't see anything. Ironically, these places were visible afterwards; only [in] the photographs, but not while I was physically [there]. Also, getting to the ruins was always a wild card: the addresses I found online [led somewhere else]. It was sort of a treasure hunt."
According to Melillo, this club in Milan was the easiest one to document. It was an open-air cluster of cement.
The structure appeared to be stripped of all content; the only things left intact were the bare walls. CafèSolaire closed because it was assumed to be linked to the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia, so it was seized and cordoned off by the police. The president of the Milan province, Guido Podestà, deemed that the CafèSolaire space would no longer be allowed to host any form of nightlife entertainment.
Turin: Ultimo Impero
"We got a hefty fine with our Enjoy camera," Melillo recalled. "In order to reach the Ultimo Impero nightclub—which was actually in Airasca—we had to go beyond the legal boundaries." Tensions were high. "The club was gigantic: four floors of debris and decay, and there were all sorts of things all over the ground. I was actually afraid that someone was living there."
The Ultimo Impero was one of the largest nightclubs in Europe, capable of accommodating more than 8,000 people. It changed names several times until it closed for legal reasons in 1998. "I felt like Alice in Wonderland," Melillo said. "I saw hares, Greek statues, chests, bottles, different refrigerators, and wire clothes hangers. The most suggestive things were all the signs of opulence of the interior: bright colors, imperial staircases."
Reggio Emilia: Marabù
Farther south, Melillo discovered another nightclub that had closed fifteen years earlier: the Marabù. Its story began during the golden age of disco, when the genre that combined funk, soul, and pop was sweeping across the world, and new dancehalls were popping up everywhere in response. The building occupied an area greater than 4,500 square meters, and its entrance was shaped like a tunnel, which is still visible today.
The inside was still painted in the bright, flamboyant colors typical of dance floors at the height of the disco era. Marabù is an abandoned giant, and it closed in 2007. "It was way too cold and the noises were disturbing," Melillo remembered. "Near the exit, I found some writing left on a wall that said, 'Heroin is a state weapon.' Maybe [that's] the final political lesson from a space [that's been] left on its own."
When she reached the Lazio region in search of 7Up, Melillo confessed to me, "I was very scared, because this club was held up in 1985 by the Casalesi clan, and it was managed by the Mafia for years. The atmosphere was terrible: [there were] signals and surveillance cameras everywhere, and stray dogs that weren't very reassuring. I only succeeded in doing little here. I'd even called different institutions to find out how to enter, but no one helped me. There was a lot of secrecy. Today, 7Up today is essentially an impenetrable eco-monstrosity, with greenhouses forming on either side." Melillo managed to spy through the cracks in the fence and saw that nature had swallowed every square centimeter of the club's interior. Impotent [ecosystems] had cropped up all over the place, and the deafening silence instilled fear.
Avellino: The East Side
Melillo took the final step of her documentary undertaking in Avellino, the city where she was born. The East Side was a nightclub whose tenure ran from the second half of the 1990s until the first years of the new millennium, and inspired most of central and southern Italy to go out dancing. Prompted by a feeling of belonging, Melillo collected firsthand accounts from Avellino locals who'd experienced the East Side in its original splendor, and the overall sentiment was one of nostalgia and profound sadness. The club had actually been a source of tourism and considerable economic revenue for the city, and everyone mourned its departure.
The East Side closed in 2007 because of numerous incidents of violence and drug raids. Directly opposite the club's entrance was a former hotel inhabited by children from the local homeless shelter. Melillo spoke with a few of the children who said they'd wanted to go check it out at the time, but they were unable to get permission.
These days, children use the space to play soccer. The makeshift field has given new life to the area and transformed the town's attentions to a different form of entertainment.
In a way, these "non-spaces" leave an indelible mark on the memories of those who experienced them in their original heyday. As the anthropologist Marc Augè writes in Ruins and Debris, "To contemplate ruins moves us to have an experience of pure time." Assigning sense and gravity to time, and acknowledging its presence, is all you can really reflect on at the sight of these abandoned buildings.
The magic of non-places like abandoned nightclubs relies entirely on the delicate line between the thing that came first and the thing it might become later. Melillo's project offers a firm denunciation: these cement phantoms didn't transform into something else after their demise. They turned into an ecological problem that the Italian government refuses to confront or, the majority of the time, even see. We're automatic witnesses to the spectacle of wild nature, which comes along and re-appropriates things as it desired. Or, to quote the landscape architect Gilles Clement, "This is a place in which man no longer lives, and nature re-assumes possession of things."
Melillo's research didn't rely exclusively on information found on the internet. She was able to consider the words of people who've given life to new, present-day musical centers. Before visiting the CafèSolaire in Milan, Melillo spoke with Dino Lupello, the founder of Elita Milano, a cultural association devoted to fostering entertainment and the arts on a local and national level. Discussing the factors that reshaped the way people experience nightlife, they identified two things: rave culture, a phenomenon created by a generation that places a precedent on mass participation; and clubbing, which hinges more on the idea that musical presentation transcends a specific physical space. To that end, discotheques lost their symbolic meaning—but they're still linked to the evolution of the nightlife scene, in that they were vital in prompting other forms of musical entertainment. They were a pivot point in the creation of various social realities.
In Turin, Melillo met Davide Amici, the Communications Manager of Xplosiva, a musical consulting firm. His notion of modern clubbing? "Knowing how to choose the right music in relation to the atmosphere and current trends."
But Daniele Baldelli, one of Italy's first DJs and a pioneer of the "afro-cosmic" type of disco, argues that the main reason for the discotheque's demise was much simpler: "The modern nightlife economy acknowledges that nowadays, every space can be used as an entertainment center."
Melillo's journey is probably best summarized as a study in understanding a location as an extension of a different space. She argues that these nightclubs are heterotopias, and paraphrases the philosopher Michel Foucault: "Different spaces are [...] alternate locations, a type of challenge to the mythical and real simultaneity of the spaces in which we live." You can still ignore reality at a discotheque, even if it's abandoned. Discourse runs dry; only music resounds. That music is gone, but Discotex offers a chance to rediscover the sound of it, if only for a few seconds.