The Pittsburgh Affect

Come dance with me through the bodyspace of a Pittsburgh rave, through this city that is such a special place to be a raver right now. In their introduction to The Affect Theory Reader, Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth say that “affect marks a body’s belonging to the world of encounters or; a world’s belonging to a body of encounters.” The belonging, the world, the encounters: at Slurp, true to name, it was all spilling out.

I got to the rave around 8 pm. It’d been going since 4, so I just caught the last slip of late-summer light as I arrived. I’d had a terrible day, for no clear reason: anxiety had been pinballing around in me. After a cold shower, I was feeling better, and hoping that the rave energy would be restorative—though trying not to exert my will toward it, as it has to come to you when comfortable, like a cat.

The rave was put on by queer PGH linchpin organizers Jellyfish, U-Haul Disco, and Kewchi Nana. The day-rave portion was under a bridge, lit up like a faggot castle, green and pink and purple. A stronghold: somehow, despite its relatively discoverable location, the crowd remained quite gay, or perhaps the straights had the polite sense to hang out in the back.

Affect isn’t located in a single body, and it progresses in layers of time. It’s as liable to slip due to pheromones as it is to the peripheral sense of everyone united in the pulse of the motherbeat: this gathering of desire that creates cohered movement “accumulates across both relatedness and interruptions in relatedness … force-encounters traversing the ebbs and swells of intensities that pass between bodies”. It can be cultivated via attention: during Yessi’s live set, full of raw emotive beats that clanged and crunched like steel bones, eight or ten of us slithered primordially at the front while the rest of the crowd swayed, encouraging but uncertain of how to dance. Ami said, I can’t turn around or I’ll see that they’re not moving. So we kept slinking and blipping and trusted in what our bodies needed to do.

And oh, the trust of that set—it was mutual. Yessi describes the soundscape of her live sets as “textural, unnerving sounds that give a sense of a place somehow, be it a physical landscape or an inner, emotional space. Aesthetically my music is very tied to techno, noise and industrial music genres, but lately I think the emotional heart of it comes from other influences, in particular Latin dance music genres like guaracha. I also take a lot of inspiration from producers like Jlin and RP Boo and the way they use percussion to move around space and weave in and out of the grid. I love messing with more uncommon meters in modern Western dance music like 3/4 and 6/8, and incorporating lots of syncopation and wobbly time structures.”

Four times during her set, the generators failed. Each time the sound went out, the crowd stayed with her, cheering when the beats slopped and bleated back into their deliciously odd places.

The dance floor expanded in a very different way with the next set, Jin & Juice and Rojo, who joyfully played R&B and house bangers and even, yes, at one point some cheeky Gwen Stefani, pointing down to friends and other exemplary ass-shakers as we all hollered with delight. Their infectious b2b energy purred through the crowd.

I’m a recent move to Pittsburgh, an interloper of a year. I didn’t think I’d stay here long, didn’t think I could find scenes that could keep pace with the bigger city I moved from. I’m overjoyed to have been proved dead wrong, the redwood renegade spots replaced with bridges, basketball courts, crumbling turn-of-the-century industry scion mansions, and no end of warehouses. The city is getting dangerously expensive for those who deserve most to stay here, but there is still so much space, and spaces of resistance, pushing against the creep of coastal natty wine bar DJs and hangers-on who have whole conversations of nothing but names and dance with nothing more than their noses.

When the last hot flash of bass had faded around 11:30, Patríck and I were still sitting on his blanket spread on the edge of the dance space under a tree, talking about somatic movement of emotion around the (gay) body. We collected our various parts and decided to leave to get a pizza. As we walked up the hill, we were joined by friends, and talked about our excitement for the new venue for the afters, at a new venue away from any potential nighttime noise complaints, and whether there’d be an outfit change in between. The energy was rising, gradually, the nighttime spirit of possibility in darkness. Patríck ordered pizza and we sprinkled minced shrooms on top. My dear Patríck, my soulmate dance wife, personifies Pittsburgh’s rave scene: tall, a massage therapist in training, with a huge proud mustache and a penchant for otherworldly noises at peak dance ecstacy, exuberantly extroverted and excited to bring everyone with him to the front of the dance floor. We once talked about the deep sensory joys of analingus for twenty minutes as intermission in the pup-centric dance party in the gay bathhouse where other notable Pittsburgh parties are held.

We were at the gate of the next venue. Our jaws dropped. We’d heard it was a repurposed boat marina but weren’t prepared for the wonderland quality: the flags hung all around, the various boats stationed on the concrete that functioned as different rooms (including one padded with pillows), the cozy fires in grates, food trucks, and the view of the Allegheny River below from the perch of the marina. Jay, sweet beloved lighting pro-cum-pup-cum-rave mom, waved me in. Patríck and I did a lap, shrieked at friends.

We gathered and moved into the warehouse. Jwan Allen, a veteran Pittsburgh head, seized control of my feet immediately. He had a superb catalog and manipulation of energy, moving at a pace a bit slower than I’m used to, letting tracks luxuriate. A patient DJ, his transitions were impeccable, and I found myself in the flow state of needing to seek out the exact moment of when the beats fused, as much to unite my body with his intention as to move for myself. The culmination of his set was experiencing a moment of fluttering, pointillist electric guitar with Lindsey, as we wiggled our arms and heads: we kept staring at each other, like, can you believe this is really happening? This!

Then the Phone People appeared out of nowhere. They created a vortex immediately, as they always do. Patríck and I exchanged looks, and telepathically attempted to shut it down. When it became obvious after a minute that their phones were sadly experience-mediating tumors that would need to be surgically removed, we turned to them. I just gestured down to the screens and said, Do that anywhere but here. Patrick had a longer talk with others in the groups; some words and looks were exchanged, and then he strode off. After a few minutes he didn’t return, and I felt concern: Was he ok? I went to go find him. He was sitting cross-legged, facing the river. I walked up, thinking of what I’d say to uplift my friend, and then realized he was making out with someone directly in his lap. In the end, a victory for the resilience of ravebody and Patríck’s beloved ability to attract cuties like a musk-ox magnet <3

I went back in and eased into the center front. This is where I go most of the time, when I’m feeling like I want to soak in the energy of the crowd, and cultivate it back out—a node coalescing among nodes. I love being close enough to DJs to see their faces, to be able to close my eyes and slide in and out of nested worlds of shared experience. When it’s hitting, the front is the domain of my fellow big steppers. It’s where I have met some of my dearest rave compatriots, the beauties who also need to work out the stuff of life in hips, shoulders, lips. The day I learn their last names or handles is always bittersweet: wonderful to deepen connection, and also an admission of a rip in the opalescent dreamscape of the dance floor to the outside world. My dances with Patríck and Patrick and Ami and Lindsey and Eva and Jay and Ben and Jeremy were the highlights of my night.

These relationships, which have begun on or been solidified by the dance floor, are what define the Pittsburgh affect to me: the deep love of the music, of the movement, of the community here, which carves out its weird and loving grooves in and for the bodies of this vibrant group of people. Someone put it to me once that in Pittsburgh, there’s no prize to win. That doesn’t mean that the caliber of music, of art, of conversation is subpar here—quite the contrary. It’s instead that we are playing a different emotional game, one of solidarity and trust in one another. It makes for something beautiful.

Patrick (no accent, but an excellent cook of soup and fine dancer in his own right) was my gracious ride home, and we agreed we’d stay for just a few minutes of Liftgate. But when his blisteringly energetic set began, we got sucked in. Juke, Jersey club, hardgroove: it was a tribute to American and especially East Coast/Midwest sounds. Liftgate: “My taste is centered around the underground with a focus on mostly US based artists. There are two main reasons for this: 1) house, techno, electro, and club music are usually regarded with a Eurocentric lens, even though they all originated in the US in POC communities; 2) I try and listen to artists that I actually have a chance to see live and potentially regard as a peer (I don't have the ability to hop on a flight and see the best that somewhere like Berlin has to offer on a whim).” This, too, feels very Pittsburgh: clout is not the thing, and having a regional focus is crucial because your practice is more a dialogue with those around you, less those you’re looking to impress thousands of miles away. The thing is your friend’s need to release their demons or their lust or their latest groove obsession. A true proximity.

Apologetically, Patrick tapped me on the shoulder. I’d just taken off my shirt (okay, leather vest), and was wilding out on “Wouldn't You Like to Be a Hoe Too" by DJ Slugo. Leaving at the peak like that, though, was right; the note was high, a complete shift in mood from where I’d been ten hours previously. As we drove home, we discussed the incredible artistry we’d heard and been a part of, and how the fleeting nature of sound and the gatherings of bodies creates all the more beauty for its ephemerality. Surrounded by care, floating on these rivers and hills of deep presence.