The sign on the bar’s front door sounds almost quaint for this era: “By entering these premises, you hereby waive the following rights: To privacy. To publicity. To bring a claim against C.E.V.”
C.E.V. stood for Controlled Entropy Ventures, the experimental technology company behind Remote Lounge, a concept bar that opened in NYC’s East Village less than a month after 9/11/2001. Inside the lounge were 60 miniature cameras (or was it more?) that filmed patrons and allowed them to surveil each other in hopes of generating love connections — or impromptu hookups.
Considered mind-blowing and transgressive at the time, Remote Lounge seems antiquated if not downright childish today, when literally everyone at every bar has their head down, staring at their phone. Still, looking back at the bar offers a fascinating insight into social culture in the final days before iPhones and dating apps. While hardly remembered today, Remote Lounge rather presciently foreshadowed the vaguely performative, look-at-me digital narcissism that has pervaded, if not somewhat ruined, modern nightlife in NYC and worldwide.
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The Telepresence Bar
“The genesis of the idea came from working with Josh Harris,” explains Leo Fernekes, one of the three partners of C.E.V. “He basically funded these crazy experimental ideas and I used them as a paid lab learning experience.”
Labeled New York’s first internet millionaire, Harris was the founder of live-streaming network Pseudo Programs — and a bit of a conceptual artist. With $85 million in his bank account after cashing out an early dot-com IPO, he hired C.E.V. to produce “Quiet: We Live in Public” in December 1999. It was a “Truman Show”-esque experiment in which 100 volunteers lived in a four-story human terrarium in SoHo, filled with free food and drink, not to mention machine guns, while webcams followed their every move.
“People want to turn the camera on themselves,” Harris told Wired at the time. “There is a pent-up desire for personal celebrity.”
The toilets lacked walls, the only shower was in a see-through geodesic dome, and the basement had a system that allowed residents to control cameras to watch their housemates having sex. A giant sign constantly warned the residents: “WE LIVE IN PUBLIC.” Their experiment later became the subject of a 2009 documentary of the same name.
“One thing that convinced me to open Remote Lounge is that Josh threw a party with all those cameras,” Fernekes says. “There were cameras in the bathroom and during the party, people would go in and perform for them. Doing sexy, naughty things, knowing they were being broadcast and monitored outside. Then they’d come out of the bathroom and people would cheer.
“‘Wow, that’s something I’ve never seen before!’” Fernekes remembers thinking. “It seemed natural to extend it into a business concept.”
A bar appeared to be the most practical move, especially since another one of C.E.V.’s partners, Bob Stratton, a software developer, knew the industry a bit from his stint as a bartender at 2A, a dive on 2nd Street and Avenue A.
“Our concept of voyeurism is very much along the lines of a normal bar,” Stratton told the L.A. Times. “People are constantly checking each other out anyway.”
The startup took over a storefront on the skid row Bowery where Bowery Electrical Supply Company, an electrical wiring outfit, had resided since 1947. They cleaned up the space’s rotted floors and outfitted it with cameras and monitors. The equipment was hardly state of the art, even by nearly 20-year-old standards.
“This has to be as inexpensive as possible,” thought Fernekes, claiming if he had developed a fancier bit of technology he wouldn’t have wasted it on a bar. They used the cheapest possible consumer-grade televisions and mounted them in interesting places around the space. There were 12 cameras over the bar, six more scattered in random places, and 24 cameras placed at custom-designed “Cocktail Consoles.” They were all rigged together like a cable TV setup — each console had joysticks that could move any camera 360 degrees, able to see every inch of the bar — as well as a monitor that customers could tune to any camera’s black-and-white broadcast.
C.E.V. called Remote a “telepresence” bar, but critics thought the NASA-gray consoles and traffic-cone-orange seating was more “retro-futurist.” Based on this 2002 picture of Remote Lounge, it resembles a 1960s vision of the future; “The Jetsons,” if you consider that a positive, or “2001: A Space Odyssey” if you don’t.
Fernekes estimates it cost them about $1 million to set up the bar, but about 75 percent of that was just exorbitant Manhattan real estate costs.
“My partners and I were high on the total hubris of the dot-com era,” Fernekes says. “We were delusional in the thought that everything we touched could be turned into gold. I look back at it now and it’s a little sad. Sad, but humorous.”
A Digital Playhouse for Local Hipsters
Yet Remote Lounge was almost immediately a hit with the “in” crowd, and it quickly (and briefly) became a part of the East Village party circuit. From its Oct. 9, 2001 opening onward, there were lines to get in every night for the first six months. Microsoft and Apple even fought over which would be the first to hold a party there (Microsoft won).
“The whole city was still in mourning, in shock and disbelief [over 9/11] and Remote kind of popped up as this cute, happy story,” Fernekes says. “The media also went bananas for it.”
Within the first month, The New York Times called it “perhaps the most media-intensive public setting in the city.” CIOL thought it was “a digital playhouse for local hipsters.” Reading these articles in 2019 is incredibly amusing, given the very public nature of social media, dating apps, and nearly every other facet of modern society.
“The concept is incredibly simple: hand over your privacy at the front door and enter a world where anyone anywhere can follow your every move,” proclaimed a 2001 BBC News article, crediting its development and acceptance to “a mix of instant messaging and reality TV, both becoming extremely popular in the last few years.”
Early Yelp reviews are even more hilarious:
“It’s like on-line/chat room dating but you’re in a real room and everyone’s eerily watching you! (sic)”
“I guess you can call it ‘instant’ video-dating?”
“why would you call someone on the phone when they’re in the same room with you??”
Adding to the surreality, Fernekes would often lie about how many cameras were actually in the bar (that BBC article claims a remarkable 120) and made up names for the drinks they served (he told writers their most popular cocktail was the Vertical Hold, an archaic term for adjusting a tube television set).
“Culturally the world was evolving to having a greater comfort for these ideas,” Fernekes says.
The visionary Harris had previously predicted to Business Week that the world was already headed toward a place where “people want their fame on a day-to-day basis, rather than in their lifetime.” And Remote Lounge fit the bill, even screen-grabbing the most outrageous moments of the night — which often involved nudity — and uploading them to the lounge’s website instantaneously. This encouraged introverts to monitor what was happening at the bar and, if they saw something they liked, hopefully lure them out for the evening. (Curious to see what they were seeing? You can! For unknown reasons, someone is still fitting the website’s hosting bill.)
Still, if Remote Lounge was the world’s first “telepresence” bar, Fernekes knew there was a bit of a precedent in the form of “telephone bars.”
A Neat Party Trick
Telecommunications have a long history in nightlife. The telephone was invented in 1876, and by the early 1900s, diners at higher-end restaurants could request to have phones brought to their tables for important calls.
In 1920s Berlin, some nightclubs had installed tischtelefonen on every table, so Weimar-era partiers could dial up random guests at any other table, which were marked by lighted numbers. At Femina and the Resi, two Berlin dance clubs that each held thousands, customers could even send pneumatic tubes filled with cigarettes, Champagne bottles, and notes to other tables. (Though nothing too provocative, as “messages sent by tube [were] checked by female ‘censors’ in the switchboard room,” according to The Chicago Tribune.) This gimmick was memorialized in “Caberet’s” “Telephone Song” and still occurs at Ballhaus Berlin.
A few decades later, in 1968, a pricey joint called Ma Bell’s opened in New York’s Times Square. Each table at Ma Bell’s had its own “old-timey” landline with free calling privileges (even long distance!). It was open until the mid-1980s and was featured as a setting in a Season 6 episode of “Mad Men.” While bar-hopping, Joan (Christina Hendricks) and a visiting gal pal hit the new spot, noting that, “Apparently, there are quite a few men here who go for a certain type.”
Yes, whether Berlin in the 1920s, Times Square in the ’60s, or the Bowery at the turn of the 21st century, these bars were, of course, mainly designed for amorous purposes. USA Today believed that, with Remote Lounge, C.E.V. had created “a setting that could revolutionize flirting in New York.” The L.A. Times wasn’t quite as certain, mocking the bar as a place “where Stanley Kubrick and Michel Foucault would go scouting for dates.”
But 20-something New Yorkers immediately loved the concept, a harbinger of their technological dating futures to come. “Around midnight, a long-haired man dressed in requisite all black, sidles up to writer Kate for a rare moment of face-to-face human interaction,” observed journalist Lauren Sandler in 2002. “His parting words are the ultimate postmodern pickup line … ‘Find me on screen later.’”
“It’s a legalized version of stalking,” a female NYU student told CIOL on opening night, observing how the monitors only showed grainy, black-and-white images. “It makes people look a lot better than they do in person, masking their flaws and making them look more attractive.”
That was intentional. Fernekes had realized that the impersonality of it all was why the concept worked so well. When the place was packed, you could be ogling a person on the monitor with no sense that they were just five feet away from you, unaware where you were as well. If both parties actually liked what they saw on their monitors, you could message a “hello” using the system’s crude text-messaging capabilities or ask to speak to them on the console’s land lines.
“That gave you the freedom to say outrageous things, as if the person wasn’t really there,” says Fernekes. “This chaos diffused into a sense of detached, impersonal anonymity.”
Rejection didn’t hurt as much either, claims Fernekes, because, unlike a face-to-face interaction in the real world, you didn’t have to actually see them reject you. They could just ignore your console-to-console texts. It became a total free-for-all, with customers trying to pick up as many people as they could at one time. Get rejected, and you could simply flip the TV channel, quickly moving on to the next person on screen, then the next. If in-person pick-up culture used to favor the bold, Remote Lounge favored the shy and timid.
“Remote Lounge provides yet another opportunity to erect a barrier between ourselves and the people we hope to meet. It is almost as though we yearn for the days of an appointed chaperone to play interference,” Stacy Kravetz wrote in her 2005 book “The Dating Race,” ultimately denigrating the cameras and monitors as nothing more than a “neat party trick, a way to entertain myself while I sit at a table.”
Our Technologically Perverted World
“Twelve years later, it’s funny to think how this novelty bar in NYC would so closely mirror our modern experience,” says Brian C. Roberts, a popular online personality. “Sometimes I’m shocked at how my experiences at the Remote Lounge would be recreated time and time again by following a hashtag on Twitter, to a photo on Instagram, to a small conversation online, and finally with meeting someone face to face … all over the course of 10 or 20 minutes on my iPhone at a local bar.”
Unfortunately, though, whether Remote Lounge was shockingly prescient, or just a neat party trick — or probably both — it ultimately wasn’t enough of a gimmick to create a thriving business. Nor was all that media coverage.
“The truth is, [Remote] reached a huge international audience,” explains Fernekes, “but those people couldn’t come to our bar, so it was lost at that point.”
C.E.V. had once hoped to franchise its idea, with pop-up Remote Lounges all over America and Europe. It hoped to then connect them all through the same system so drinkers in, say, Dallas could flirt with bar patrons in Amsterdam — “the time-shifting of content,” Fernekes called it. “The problem is, the only way we were making money is by selling drinks and there’s a limit to what you can charge people for a cocktail. It just didn’t make much economic sense.”
Eventually, Fernekes realized the bar also suffered from what you would call a “critical mass” problem. A packed house on Saturday was great. But what if you came in on a Monday evening and there were only two other customers in the bar?
“It was very uncomfortable, like going into a hall of mirrors,” Fernekes says. “If the bar had less than three or four people, it was a very unpleasant experience.”
People quickly realized that as well. First, Mondays started being dead, then Tuesday, then the whole week, and little by little Remote Lounge was only getting viable crowds on the weekends. Soon the cameras and monitors quit working; drunk and disorderly patrons even broke a few. Eventually you had a mostly empty, windowless, retro-futurist bar with dozens of monitors broadcasting bright-white static.
“It was a novelty at first, but gave way quickly to just being creepy,” Eater wrote in a 2007 postmortem. “The crowd got seedier over time.”
The real world was changing, too, and finally catching up to Remote Lounge’s vision. In 2007, Americans sent more texts than phone calls. Dating websites were becoming more prominent and mainstream. Then, in June 2007, the iPhone hit the market. This was perhaps the final nail in the coffin for Remote, and the one topic Fernekes seemed unwilling to discuss still today. Remote Lounge closed a few months later in November 2007.
“Nowadays you’re just numb to all of it. It’s too much of a technologically perverted world,” Fernekes says. “I think Remote definitely alluded to the perversely artificial and competitive nature of Instagram. The technologically augmented social interactions that are completely fabricated and just designed to tap into the human instincts. It’s a bit perverse and unhealthy. Our genetic, instinctual evolution has not caught up with the technology.”
And the technology is still racing forward. Smartphones have gotten better and more widespread in the last decade. Meanwhile, texting grew more prominent, and a plethora of dating apps arrived. In 2009, Grindr launched, and in 2012 Tinder. Now all the pieces are in place — everyone has a tiny Remote Lounge in their pocket or purse at all times. You just need to add drinks.
“I see kids on their phone today [at the bar],” says Fernekes, now 56 and living in Bangkok. “And I think, wow, that looks kind of sad. It’s just not a reality that seems very interesting to me.”