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Live: Arca, Gatekeeper and Shams at Night Spa

I’m pretty used to New York being the kind of place where, if you can think up a novelty party concept, it’s probably already been done, but I must admit that I didn’t know what I was getting into when I heard that Arca and Gatekeeper were DJing last night at a spa along the Fort Greene waterfront called Body By Brooklyn. A cryptic, emoticon-studded Facebook invite announced the third installment of Night Spa, a bimonthly party promising a handpicked selection of local electronic artists and a list of water and steam-filled creature comforts. Bathing suits and flip flops were mandatory; white robes were to be provided at the door, and cash could be used for the purchase of assorted cocktails and a variety of a la carte “Wet Lounge” treatments performed by a mysterious someone named Platza Master Fera. My mind prepared me for one of two scenarios, both grounded in a very New York kind of self-indulgence: the Night Spa was either going to be the most decadent party I had ever been to or the most wholesome and health-giving one.

Entering the shadowy building beneath the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in which Body By Brooklyn is located made me feel a bit like a character in Eyes Wide Shut, absconding to some guilt-ridden, quasi-religious ritual of the night. Inside, though, what was perhaps most remarkable about the party was how spa-like it actually was. Past the dressing rooms, where my roommate and I swapped our street outfits for bathing suits, the building’s central room was all columns, green marble and geometrical lines. On one end of the low-lit hall, a bar that looked straight out of a lounge in the primitive role-playing game Spaceship Warlock was doling out drinks with names like Singapore Sling and Einstein on the Beach. Shams, the self-proclaimed inventor of a genre of gloomy, Internet-centric electronic music that people don’t talk about as much anymore, was hunched over a glowing Macbook, administering something smooth and jazzy and at that nebulous intersection between ambient music and house. Nearby, a large, stocky man kneaded a bikini-clad woman in a massage chair as a couple warmed themselves by an in-wall fireplace that somehow looked more like a representation of a hearth than an actual one.

“It feels sort of like Second Life in here,” said Angelina Dreem, one of a handful of faces from cooperatively-run Bushwick yoga studio Body Actualized Center, which peddles in a similar blend of physical pampering and meditative electronica. Gatekeeper’s Aaron David Ross, whose frosted tips somehow confirmed this impression, remarked in passing that the nature video being played on mute over the flat-screen TVs actually had the sort of incidental music that would work really well as a soundtrack for the festivities at hand.

Everybody was clad in robes. This drove home one of the crucial differences between going to a DJ night in a bar or club and going to a DJ night in a spa, which is that in the latter environment, no matter which microcosm of the greater independent music subculture one happens to identify with most, everybody kind of looks the same. Sure, there’s the predictable differences that you get when you bring together bodies of varying gender, age, and fitness levels, but there’s something very novel about entering a social situation stripped of all the wrappings and personal affects that we normally use to describe ourselves to other people, even describe us to ourselves. As my roommate and I had exited the lockeroom, this slight loss of individuality gave way to a feeling of identity gained—that of membership in a group, of being one of sixty odd people who had RSPVd on time and were ready to feel slightly more vulnerable than usual together.

Beyond the room with the bar, the “Wet Lounge” was a chapel-sized, vaguely chlorinated chamber fitted with a hot tub, a cool water basin, and three hot rooms of varying humidity and temperature. Adding to the feeling that we were living out some kind of real-life manifestation of a virtual, generic pleasure palace, our options were luxurious but not especially numerous. Musical enjoyment aside, the Night Spa experience required moving between these climate-controlled amenities until you couldn’t bear to do any so longer—perhaps because you’ve moved from the Turkish steam-room to the medium-temperature Swedish Sauna to the formidable, potentially life-threatening, 180-200 degree Russian one, and realized it was time for a drink. Deciding whether it was a better idea to ingest alcohol at such a juncture or jump straight into the pool of 50 degree water was part of the fun, as was the pleasurable dullness that overtakes the brain when you’re exposed to unusually high temperatures. Still, I think I got the greatest thrill when I wandered my way out of the closed ecosystem of the spa room, and stumbled into a secret “VIP Room” that contained a second hot tub, piled high with a tangle of laughing, female and male flesh. To borrow a phrase from video artist Tabor Robak, who made the breathtaking video game for Gatekeeper’s recent Exo album, it was a “fourth wall-breaking moment.”

I didn’t witness any x-rated activity at Spa Night this week, but the fact that I didn’t, I think, speaks to something that founders Craig Klein and Philip Beretta have nailed. Spa Night is neither entirely a rager nor entirely an exercise in contemplative navelgazing, but somehow, it contains elements of both. One could easily view it more as a social experiment than an actual party, but it is all the more pleasurable for all its ambiguity. According to Beretta, a cerebral electronic music fan who also runs his own virtual hair salon, Cyberpretty, on Second Life, Spa Night is a convergence of the Roman bacchanal with the Greek ideal of aesthetic perfection (which, on second thought, is a pretty good index for quality dance music in itself). More importantly, though, it nudges us to look at the collective ritual of the party through estranged eyes. “When you take a first glance at the "Party" as we experience it as a social event, it's not very impressive on its face,” he told me the following day, over Gchat. “It's a room in which people become intoxicated, engage to varying degrees with central spectacles, often performative, and do their mating dances, and after a certain length of time in these rooms, if you're someone who charges yourself with creating experiences, you really start to wonder: is this really our recreational dream coming true in real time?”

Aaron David Ross was kind of right about the DJing being interchangeable with the soundtrack of the muted nature movie. With all the other sensory stimulation around, it felt more incidental than anything else, a single facet of a larger project geared toward an expanded awareness of the forms recreation, and electronic music culture, can take. It may be hard to imagine right now, Beretta admitted, but “I do think that suburban moms and downtown NYC aesthete-ascetics should maybe hang out at a spa together listening to Blondes."

Live: Arca, Gatekeeper and Shams at Night Spa