Danny Fuentes, curator of Lethal Amounts gallery downtown, has seen success with his latest club venture, Sex Cells at the Echoplex, for the past several months, providing a provocative, gender-bending, dress-up parade featuring performance artists, DJs and musical acts, hosted by some of Los Angeles' most flamboyant characters. For the club's Halloween event, scheduled for Friday, Oct. 27, he booked New York's DJ Keoki and Miss Kitten, along with infamous “party monster” Michael Alig as one of the co-hosts. (Frequent L.A. Weekly contributor Liz Ohanesian will be DJing the event, as well.) As he told L.A. Weekly in an exclusive interview yesterday, Sex Cells was in many ways inspired by the influential NYC “club kid” period of the '90s, so having Alig there, along with Keoki and Kitten, was his attempt at re-creating that vital time in nightlife.
But when word got out that convicted killer Alig (who served 17 years in prison for manslaughter and was released in 2014) was scheduled to appear, it ignited protests on social media and a Change.org petition titled “Remove Michael Alig from Hosting the 'Sex Cells' party on October 27, 2017.” Accompanied by a photo of Alig's victim, Andre “Angel” Melendez, the petition was created by L.A. writer Patrick Waechter. Though Sex Cells is a mixed club, the petition frames the appearance as a gay community issue, stating, “We feel that having Michael Alig on the bill for this event sends a message to young and impressionable LGBTQA individuals that sensationalizes this act of violence and the drug abuse that led up to it as if these things are acceptable, or even glamorous.
“As concerned members of the nightlife community, we respectfully ask for the promoter and/or venue to consider our request for Mr. Alig to be removed from the advertising of this event as well as to be excluded from performing, speaking or otherwise being associated with the event in an official capacity,” the petition goes on to state. “For us, and for many LGBTQA individuals, nightlife spaces are and always should be safe spaces, and nothing else. They are not places where violence is encouraged or romanticized.”
Many (gay and straight) agreed that Alig's presence was at best insensitive to Melendez and his family, and at worst sending a dangerous message. At the time of this writing, the petition had garnered 2,500 signatures. In addition to the petition, phone calls and emails were made to the venue, the Echoplex, which apparently was effective. By last Friday afternoon, Oct. 19, Alig's name was off the Facebook invite and flyer. By that evening, Spaceland Presents, which owns the Echo and Echoplex, canceled the entire event, leaving Fuentes to look for a new location. For reasons that are unclear, Fuentes also did not appear for his scheduled DJ set at the Cloak & Dagger Festival (co-produced by Spaceland) that evening, either.
Fuentes, who is no stranger to controversy (through Lethal Amounts, he also is hosting a special one-night Halloween exhibit of photos and memorabilia from Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey), had remained silent on the entire issue until Tuesday, Oct. 24, when he announced that Sex Cells was back on at a new location, the Resident in downtown L.A. The Sex Cells Facebook page posted a new event listing for the party with a flyer reading, “God hates Sex Cells.” Miss Kitten, Keoki and Matt Pernicano are listed on the flyer. Alig is not — although the flyer does promise a “very special guest.” Fuentes says Alig is “aware of the sensationalism” around his planned co-host gig and noted that “his invitation has not been rescinded,” but did not confirm whether or not Alig would appear at Resident. He did note that unlike DJs Keoki and Kitten, Alig was never being paid for the appearance, other than travel and accommodations. He also released a statement defending his reasons for booking Alig, which you can read in full below.
In early '90s New York, Alig was known as “king of the club kids,” rising to fame hosting wild, drug-fueled parties at clubs including the Limelight, the Palladium and the Tunnel. The scene made a huge impact on New York nightlife at the time, attracting legions of young, outrageously dressed patrons who conjured an alternative lifestyle seeped in excess, hedonism and rebellion not seen since the Studio 54 days. Even before Melendez's death, the New York club kids were infamous on a national level, thanks mostly to the proliferation of daytime talk shows at the time. James St. James (who moved to L.A. soon after the murder and wrote a book about it, Disco Bloodbath), Richie Rich (who became a successful high-fashion designer with the Heatherette brand), Alig and his other cohorts made the rounds with daytime TV hosts like Joan Rivers and Phil Donahue, terrifying parents and garnering young fans around the country with their garish get-ups and smart mouths.
The Melendez killing happened at the height of club kids' fame, and the gruesome details were documented in several media outlets, most thoroughly in the Village Voice by nightlife columnist Micheal Musto. Melendez was a drug dealer who supplied a lot of people on the scene, and Alig and his roommate, Robert D. “Freez” Riggs, apparently killed Melendez during an argument over an unpaid drug debt. Both claimed to be high on a mix of ketamine, heroin, cocaine and rohypnol. After leaving Melendez's corpse in a bathtub full of ice for several days, Alig and Riggs dismembered the body and dumped it into the Hudson River. Alig later bragged about the murder to his friends. He and Riggs both pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter in exchange for testifying against nightclub owner Peter Gatien, who was suspected of selling ecstasy and other drugs at his clubs. The killing has been recounted in two documentaries and a feature film, Party Monster, in which Alig was played by Macaulay Culkin. (Alig has said Party Monster got several key facts wrong, most notably that he and Riggs were not actually attempting to kill Melendez but acting in self-defense.)
Alig is allegedly clean from drugs now and has been hosting parties in New York for a few years. If he does appear at Sex Cells, it will be his first time hosting an event in Los Angeles.
We contacted Waechter, creator of the Change.org petition, after Fuentes announced the party's new location, but he said he had no further comment. He and others incensed by the booking had threatened to protest or picket the Echoplex when Alig was appearing there, but it's not clear if that will happen Friday if Alig shows. Via Facebook messenger, Waechter wrote, “My name is attached to it, but the petition represents the collective feelings of a few friends, and however many people have signed it. It was created to send a message and the message has been sent. I'm not protesting the event any further.”
In regard to a possible protest by others at his event, Fuentes said, “We are all about inclusion so everyone is always welcome at our events.” He declined to comment on whether Sex Cells will return to the Echoplex for future events.
When asked about the cancellation of Sex Cells at the Echoplex, a representative for Spaceland Presents sent L.A. Weekly the following statement:
“Spaceland received multiple email concerns regarding the appearance of Michael Alig at the club night Sex Cells scheduled for Friday, Oct 27, 2017, at the Echoplex. Due to these concerns and our internal discussion, we decided to cancel this event.
“This was a decision based on safety concerns and the message Spaceland wants to promote. Spaceland has and continues to be supportive of creative ideas and freedom of expression but due to Alig's history, we chose not to move forward with the event.”
Fuentes' full explanation and first public statement on the Michael Alig controversay was sent to L.A. Weekly on Lethal Amounts letterhead and is reprinted in full below. Fuentes also included statements of support he gathered from a few well-known figures in the L.A. art and music scenes; those also appear below.
This week I lost something precious to me. Sex Cells, the monthly DJ night I have been booking with Spaceland and has taken place at the Echo and Echoplex since January, was canceled after a coordinated campaign by keyboard warriors who made it a mission to get us shut down. In short, my association with Michael Alig made me a target for some individuals who thought the community surrounding my gallery needed saving from my own event.
I booked Alig because I liked the idea of the bringing out the original party monster for Halloween and re-creating the magic of the '90s New York club scene (often imitated and never replicated). I even booked his old partner, Superstar DJ Keoki for the event, who headlined a lot of Michael's parties back in the '90s.
I didn't think it would be too much of a problem having him participate as a guest. He has already hosted plenty of parties since being released from prison, both here in L.A. and currently in NYC. What makes this party any different? For some unknown reason my event became an issue. I at no point made any reference to or glamorized violence what-so-ever. However, the intention behind my wanting to throw this party was misinterpreted and made to take on a different meaning that is both false, unwarranted and sensationalized.
In case you are unaware, Lethal Amounts is first and foremost an art gallery. We take pride in taking chances and exploring unpopular opinions and/or taboo subject matter. Our event Sex Cells is an extension of the gallery and to us it’s not just a dance club, it’s another form of artistic expression.
I grew up in East L.A. My family are South American immigrants that struggled to make a better life here. I've been hustling as a promoter since I was 15. Being a part of the LGBTQ community, I made it a point to work with bands and artists that push boundaries and queer people of color that represent a minority within a minority. We are working hard to make beautiful events happen and establish a community in Los Angeles. Every month we book performers and artists that both entertain and provoke the status quo. We are against elitism and intentionally invite people from all walks of life: gay, straight, trans, punk, drag, goth, black, white, Latino, etc. We don’t discriminate, but rather celebrate. Always have, always will.
If I upset anyone by involving Michael Alig in our event, I can only say that it was not my intention to do so. At no point did we glamorize violence or make any mention of it for that matter. To me Michael Alig is a legendary personality in counterculture. He is a force behind a phenomenon that launched the careers of many icons and kicked open a new door for disenchanted LGBTQ youth. He helped create a place where you can ditch your negative feelings and reinvent yourself in a positive and creative way. He represented the outsider and welcomed everyone who wanted to partake in the magic. Characters were able to be born in these clubs and blossom into cult figures, including household names like RuPaul, who were very much a part of that very scene.
This particular edition of Sex Cells was meant to be an homage to the positive aspects of Alig’s legacy and for the path he paved. We choose to focus on inclusivity, acceptance, creativity and the artistry of this era. Club Kids were probably the biggest underground movement since Punk Rock and to me they shared similar ideas, which, ultimately, is why I’m so inspired by that time.
Lethal Amounts is oftentimes recognized as a punk gallery due to our ethos and that may not be for everyone, but that does not mean that we are to be silenced. I hope that everyone can see it from our perspective as well and appreciate the risks we take.
—Danny Fuentes (Lethal Amounts)
Quotes From Some of My Supporters:
“A bunch of self-appointed judges have disgraced themselves by trying to silence someone that does more for their community than they have ever done with their unkind words. They should be weary [sic] of Danny Fuentes because he can intellectualize things they can’t understand. It's people like Danny that move our society forward.” – Danny Fields (former manager of the Ramones, Iggy and the Stooges, signed the MC5)
“Art galleries and artists represent one of the last true bastions of free speech. The ability to explore difficult concepts through art is a powerful tool. There are things of importance, culturally and socially, that are not always pretty or easily palatable. With so few galleries pushing any boundaries in this current politically correct era, it is important to celebrate those that are unafraid to go beyond the mainstream. When I hear about galleries, museums, artists, musicians or writers being bullied into censorship or self-censorship, it threatens all that I hold sacred. This is happening on a more frequent basis, too. An art gallery should always be a safe space, but a safe space for freedom of speech and freedom of expression.” – Bill Shafer, Hyaena Gallery
“I recently had a retrospective of my photographs at Lethal Amounts in Los Angeles, and I support Danny Fuentes and his gallery in its project to exhibit difficult, controversial and even queasy work. The function of art should be to provoke discussion, to challenge the limits of representation, and to allow free expression of ideas, no matter how unpleasant or ‘distasteful.’ If Lethal Amounts presents a show that you find disagreeable or offensive, by all means picket it, protest it or otherwise register your opposition to it. But the continuing trend of pre-censorship and the attempted policing of representation, particular on the left, in the current climate, sets dangerous precedents for any artists or galleries who show contentious and, if you will pardon the overused expression, ‘politically incorrect’ work. In the interest of freedom of expression, I support Lethal Amounts in its continuing project of presenting work that disturbs and perturbs. “ – Bruce LaBruce