Le Pulp: The Politics of Dancing

June 1, 2016

The Grand Boulevards’ neighborhood has everything it takes to be the heart of Parisian clubbing. It’s central, easy to access with the subway, and it’s full of concert halls and movie theaters that could’ve easily been transformed into great clubs (which is what happened 40 years ago with Le Palace, and 30 years ago with the Rex Club). This long Haussmannian strip is as dreary by day as it is by night, but one club on the Grand Boulevard not only changed the strip, but also changed Parisian clubbing culture.

Launched in 1997, by a group of lesbians who were to become the mothers of a new wave of Parisian music and art, Le Pulp is one of the most legendary clubs in the city. People still talk about it today. In a dark and, let’s face it, quite unappealing room, with its low ceiling and rough soundsystem, Le Pulp seamlessly transitioned between the last century and today better than any other club: lasting ten crazy years, in a mutating world. Perhaps Le Pulp’s greatest achievement was the surfacing of a non-conformist group of women that would change the public perception of lesbians in France. Overflowing with stories of brawls between girls at dawn, the history of Le Pulp, in all its mucky magnificence, has been told over and over again.

Le Pulp was for every kind of freak who did not feel comfortable in other Parisian clubs.

Until Le Pulp, the separatism between gays and lesbians in clubs in France, like the rest of the country, always had been, and continued to be, extremely strong. Head to any Latin or English-speaking country, and you’ll notice how it’s diversified in contrast: the community spirit elsewhere is way more inclusive. In France, the gays were on one side and the girls were on the other. Le Pulp smashed those gates open, allowing access to (almost) everyone. Yet, the lasting impact of this club on the French LGBT community today still deserves our attention.

A revelation

I remember a cover of French gay magazine called Têtu, in around 1998, with its spread of Le Pulp’s female crew. I had seen them prepare for the shooting. Those young, sexy girls, eight years ahead of The L Word (sorry for the cliché, but it’s true), were astounding to watch: they were cool, smart and funny. I was close to 40-years old, and it had taken me that long to find that same, alternative lesbian vibe in Paris I had loved in London in ‘80s, and at Cherry Grove in New York in the early ‘90s. Le Pulp had finally connected Paris with the international lesbian culture. It was as if a box had been crossed.

In a country as divided as France, where the basic concept of community is fought against by the entire political class and where lesbians have always been less acknowledged, these lesbians were breaking the unspoken clubbing diktat by mixing up ethnic and sexual groups. Their club was for every kind of freak who did not feel comfortable in other Parisian clubs. With its dirty feel and low ceiling it didn’t exactly look great, but it embodied the modern punk spirit – and its trashier aspects are what gave its DJs and organizers cultural status.

A feminist club

In Luis-Marcel Garcia’s article, An Alternate History of Sexuality in Club Culture, Jennifer Cardini sums up Le Pulp’s policy : “We’d created a place packed with girls having fun together, who felt sexy as lesbians – and where boys loved to come – if they behaved themselves.”

To behave. When you’re a man and you enter a girls club, it’s like entering a black club: you’re now the minority. As a man, you have to know how to take a step back and to find the appropriate balance between being part of things and not – well, never – be rude. You go from being dominant to being dominated. It’s the kind of lesson in behavior that everyone needs in order to fully grasp the concept of being a minority.

Sextoy Stories - Trailer

Le Pulp did that for 10 years: disseminating, with its resident DJs Chloé and Sextoy, a feminist prerequisite in the Paris clubbing scene that had been unknown until then. This idea was imposed by a wider group of women with roaring personalities, including Fany Corral, Jennifer Cardini, Axelle Le Dauphin and La Chocha. You didn’t mess with those girls!

It was a club of working class lesbians that attracted, out of respect, a cautious jet set who had fun, took drugs, and occasionally dabbled in darker moods. (When Sextoy passed away in 2002, which was nothing short of a tragedy for the Parisian lesbian community, Le Pulp had to face that as well.) Everything at Le Pulp had a political grounding because it harbored modern, arty, messy, drunk feminists.

A bridge with heteros

What also massively fueled the club’s legend was its progressive fusion with boys. When Mimi Cassaro (now at Rosa Bonheur) tells Tsugi the story of the club’s beginnings, she insists on the fact that Scratch Massive, Fabrice Desprez and Guido Minisky were instrumental in this regard. The pairing of Sextoy and Ivan Smagghe was the cornerstone of the club’s musical selection – and it was very new.

Le Pulp’s de facto position was to remain outside of a wider musical movement.

Never before had lesbians and heteros developed such a sound: alternative, and darker than the mainstream. In 1997, the French Touch, with its foundations in the cushy neighborhoods of Versailles, dominated the popular music charts. In contrast, Le Pulp’s de facto position was to remain outside of a wider musical movement, particularly one that wasn’t exactly comfortable with the LGBT community (like the French Touch was): a colder, harder and groovier techno sound that embodied the streets and slums, and drew parallels with the then-explosion of the underground scene in Berlin.

With moments of radical nonsense and an eclectic live music policy, this raging, messy spirit forged by Sextoy and Smagghe’s ideas remained even after Le Pulp closed. It was one of the only clubs in the city that local fanzine Barbieturix kept covering afterwards, too, with pictures of the building and its graffiti-covered walls.

The beginning of the end of AIDS

“Le Pulp” had a precise meaning in contemporary French gay culture. You felt its influence in conversations, and on every corner of the city. Even now, very few people realize that the opening of Le Pulp coincided with the arrival of the very first HIV triple therapies – which shone a ray of hope in the midst of the AIDS epidemic that’s almost forgotten about today. There’s an irony in the fact that lesbians marked a gay renaissance at a physical level – a renaissance of survival. During the darkest years of AIDS, lesbians brought home the reality of generosity, actively participating in the protesting associated with AIDS awareness movement.

I myself only went to Le Pulp a few times. I was spending all my time at Act Up in those days, and doing work concerned with such therapies. But Le Pulp stood clear and apparent from the cloud of AIDS, of which I was still a prisoner (when I look at pictures of myself from the early 2000s, I look like death).

Pulp - Gay Pride 1998

In 2000, some friends and I started our own club, K.A.B.P., which on several levels was an extension of Le Pulp. It was just as inclusive: we understood that we needed to have girls for a boys club in order to be happy.

Like a farandole in a squat, Le Pulp was the first in a lineage of a nocturnal avant-garde. There aren’t that many YouTube videos around of it (some Miss Kittin here, some Ivan Smagghe here, or with Fany playing The Clash, or Jennifer Cardini), and they were all shot during its final years, but there still is this great video where you can see all the girls at the 1998 Gay Pride. Those dykes can really dance. Enjoy!

Didier Lestrade is a journalist and a writer. He is also known for his work as an activist in the fight against AIDS and a founder of Act-Up.

Illustration by Caroline Andrieu

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