Spencer Sweeney has done a lot of different things since moving to New York in 1998. Painter, DJ, and nightclub owner, Sweeney’s engagement with New York’s broad creative pool has led to distinctly memorable experiences for all participants. Sweeney believes in bringing different crowds and scenes into one place- both in art and life- an inclusiveness characterized by the melting pot of New York itself. 

I wanted to start off by asking you about John Giorno. You told me he was the reason that you moved to New York.
I had found a copy of The Dial-A- Poet record called Totally Corrupt. He had this recording on it called “I Don’t Want It, I Don’t Need It, And You Cheated Me Out of It."
Cool. 
That’s how I was introduced to his work. I went to TLA Video store, where I was working, and found this one Giorno Poetry Systems video tape. It was a tape of him performing at a club in the 80's. He was surrounded by a crowd just hanging off every word. This was in a nightclub scenario.  His reading was so radical, the crowd was so engaged and enthusiastic. I thought to myself "That's where I should be."
When did you move?
’97. I went straight from college to New York.
Did you study painting?
Yes. It was a really strict Figurative Studies program at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The oldest art school in the country. You draw plaster casts for two years straight, and then you get to draw a live model.
Why did you choose to go to that school?
I wasn’t interested in the art school scene. I didn’t want to have any part of it, so I opted for this really traditional figurative studies school. That’s what I wanted to do. It was just me and a bunch of housewives painting naked people all day.
Why figurative work?
I just wanted to further my studies in painting figures and in painting in general. A lot of art schools weren’t even teaching painting then. Painting was considered a dead art when I was in art school.
Did you master it as a craft?
Yes, I mastered that shit. 
Do you come from an arty family?
My mom was an avid painter and she designed resort wear professionally to put the kids through school. She did it in a real painterly way. She’s an artist, and that’s how I got turned on to painting.
What about your siblings?
My older brother would go to punk shows and he would bring me along. I was in fifth grade.
Fifth grade?
I was exposed to all kinds of great music through him and his friends. Punk stuff, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground... early Pink Floyd. I got into some really cool music at a really young age. Then when the Indie rock scene started happening, I was contemptuous of the whole thing, I didn’t like it. I was like, “These guys are mumbling into the microphone, this is bullshit.” I wasn’t down with the informal approach. 
Kinda like figurative painting.
Yeah. At the time I didn’t want to go an art school with a punk / goth art school scene, and I didn’t like the schlubby vibes of what was about to be called Indie rock either. Now I kinda like some of that shit though.
What did you first do when you moved to New York?
I had worked at TLA Video in Philadelphia. They opened a branch in New York, so I went. It was a video store job.
Cool.
It was right next to Electric Lady Studios on 8th Street. One night Ric Ocasek from the Cars and Alan Vega from Suicide walked out when I was changing the window display. I introduced myself and said I was a big fan. They were so nice. Alan gave me a big hug.
Did you start Actress soon after moving to New York?
Yeah.
What exactly was Actress?
Actress was a performance group that explored the identity of being a band. It was pretty aggressively noisy and fucked up musical experience. We worked a lot of different concepts into the performances. I was the only male member along with four girls, two of which, worked at American Fine Arts where we all hung out. It was Jesse Holzworth, Amy Gartrell, Sadie Laska and Lizzzi Bougatsos. The performances were very spontaneous. It was balls out improv all the time. No one aside from mice elf had been in a band before. So we relied entirely on musical intuition.
How did it start?
Well, Actress was a collaborative effort in every way. I got to New York, looking for this really crazy scene. I wasn’t able to find it; it all just seemed so homogenous. There was your Indie rock scene and your hip-hop scene, and then your gay scene. That’s not what I was looking for. Actress was also a way to start shaking things up. We did these performances to try to bring something to life that we really wanted to see happen.
Was American Fine Arts an influence?
Definitely. We used to call Colin de Land, who ran AFA, our only fan. He would joke around about being the manager. Colin appreciated it, and it fit because his program was so open-ended. It would be hard to find a consistent string aesthetically that went through any of the artists who showed at American Fine Arts.
Really?
I think it was more about where people came from. Colin would pick up on different people’s ideas for completely different reasons. I remember before Matthew Barney was with Barbara Gladstone, he told Colin he wanted to show at American Fine Arts. Colin told him “if you’re looking for the fast lane to success, this is the slow lane.” It was people’s intents and agendas, or lack there of, that factored into how they fell into working with Colin.
Could you describe an Actress show that really sticks out in your memory?
Yeah. There was a show at Greene Naftali gallery. We had taped contact mics to the backs of these stretched canvases. They went into an Alesis drum machine with some bad settings. Really bad sounds. We put little artificial blood squibs in our hair and wore white and banged our heads over the contact mic canvases. That would trigger a horrible sound. We had worked out a procession and performance around that. That was one of the more formal performances. Others were total chaos. At First, we only played in art galleries. We did a show at Tonic. Then we opened for Will Oldham at the Bowery Ballroom. We played to a packed, sold out house. That one was fucking hilarious. We have some good pictures from that one.
I’ve seen those photos Rosalie Knox shot of you guys. It’s obvious image was an important factor in that group.
We were interested in all the ephemera that surround bands. We were into doing interviews and doing our own photo shoots. The music was really out there. We thought at the time that we were against music. You hear about bands being the reason that so many other bands started, that they spawned hundreds of bands. We wanted to be the band that would make people break up their bands or decide not to start playing music.
I remember 2001 as a year when all these albums that came out: Fischerspooner, Andrew W.K., Le Tigre, The Strokes, Peaches. They were all kind of ‘metabands’—self-aware projects.
Yeah, Actress was before that.
I always wondered if there was a connection.
I think that Actress did have an influence on some bands. We were very influenced by the No Wave scene and Throbbing Gristle and things like that. What was called “electroclash scene” for lack of a better term, That was influenced by the No Wave scene somewhat. Also an ‘80s aesthetic as far as new wave clothes.
Right.
Actress was very meta in a way because it was conceptual. We were out to create a conceptual punk band or rock band. We were more interested in the different formalities of it than the actual music. The music was an aggressive departure from musicality, but then again, inevitably, it would fall back into it.
What was your relationship to American Fine Arts outside of Actress? Did you show there?
My first solo show in New York was there in 2001, and I was in a group show there, too. I liked what was going on there so I had naturally gravitated towards it. I became good friends with Colin, and I hung out there basically everyday.
What were your paintings like at that time?
I collaged different styles. All my different interests poured in and became the synthesis of what I was doing at that time. I was interested in the layering of graffiti, and in how opposing styles came together. They were really energetic, aggressive compositions.
How did you end up with Gavin Brown?
While I showed at American Fine Arts, I produced music and performance nights of performance and music at Gavin’s gallery. I threw parties. Like Andrew W.K.
How did you find out about Andrew WK?
My friend Ghazi Berekett had seen Andrew at Starbucks—
Oh, I’ve heard about that show.
Yeah, he saw the Starbucks show. He told me to check out Andrew W.K. He said he was like Rick Wakeman on steroids, using his keyboard like a pommel horse. I thought, I gotta meet this guy, so I asked him to do a night at the Passerby.
Passerby was Gavin Brown’s bar?
Passerby was a bar on 15th Street in front of Gavin’s gallery space. I DJed there on Friday nights for years.
Had you been DJing before that?
When I worked at the video store, I picked up DJ gigs here and there. I had always collected records. I DJed at some big clubs like Spa. For a long time, the only way I made money was DJing.
What kind of stuff would you play?
When I DJed, I would play Michael Jackson. I played Suicide. I played Slayer. I’d play what I was into, not a specific type of music.
What was Passerby like?
It was cool. It was an actual artist hangout when it started. We would have all the young artists of the day, and then Lawrence Weiner sitting at the end of the bar. Then you would have Rub n Tug and DJ Harvey on saturdays. Everybody was there. It was often very packed with a really special gathering of people, and they would really party. We would go all night and then pull down the gates and keep going. Passerby closed around 2008.
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!
Crazy.
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.