video, black and white, silent, 9 minutes, 2006
In the summer of 1962, the Mansfield, Ohio Police Department photographed men having sex in a public restroom under the main square of the city. A cameraman hid in a closet and watched the clandestine activities through a two-way mirror. He filmed over a three week period, and the resulting movie was used to obtain the convictions of over 30 local men on charges of sodomy. With some of this footage the Mansfield Police later produced Camera Surveillance, an instructional film circulated in law enforcement circles. It showed how to set up a sting operation to film and arrest “sex deviants.” William E. Jones found a degraded version of the film on the internet, then reedited the footage to make Mansfield 1962, a haunting, silent condensation of the original.
Butt Magazine Tribute Screenings: Tate Modern, London; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Outfest, Los Angeles and Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival; IndieLisboa, Lisbon, Portugal; International Short Film Festival, Oberhausen, Germany; InsideOut, Toronto; David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles; Modes of Disclosure, Form+Content Gallery, Minneapolis; NeoIntegrity, Derek Eller Gallery, New York; QFest Houston; Mix New York; Legally!, Hyperion Tavern (formerly Cuffs), Los Angeles; Barcelona Independent Film Festival, Barcelona, Spain; BodyPoliticX, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam; Home Works IV, Beirut, Lebanon; White Light Cinema, Chicago; The House That Lust Built, Trinity Square Gallery, Toronto; Queer City Cinema, Regina, Saskatchewan; The Young and Evil, Tank TV, London; Fruit Farm Film Festival, McMinnville, Oregon; É claro que você sabe sobre o que estou falando?, Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo, Brazil; The Porn Identity, Kunsthalle Wien, Austria; REDCAT, Los Angeles, ar/ge kunst Galleria Museo, Bolzano, Italy; CPH:DOX, Copenhagen, Denmark; Anthology Film Archives, New York
Dean Otto, “Artists of the Year: William E. Jones,” City Pages (Minneapolis) January 2, 2008.
News of Sen. Larry Craig’s arrest by an undercover police officer in a public-toilet sex sting at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport exploded in the press in late August. Newscasters were befuddled as they reported the details. Later, Craig’s explanation that his “wide stance” in the stall was misunderstood by the officer became a pop euphemism for gay. Public-bathroom sex became fodder for late-night monologues, and the site of Craig’s bust turned into a tourist attraction.
All of that gives remarkable weight and context to the work of Los Angeles filmmaker William E. Jones, who exhibited at Walker Art Center last summer, just before the scandal broke. Jones’s films often rework footage from the nonsexual moments in gay porn, and addresses the lines between fandom and obsession. In the process of mining images of gay sexuality in film, he uncovered an instructional film called Camera Surveillance, produced by the Highway Safety Foundation, that taught officers techniques to covertly film illegal sexual activity in public toilets. In this case, the footage shot in 1962 in the small town of Mansfield, Ohio, led to charges and convictions of more than 30 men. Jones’s reworking of the footage, Mansfield 1962, which showed at the Walker, contains many levels of irony. The surveillance tapes were shot by police hiding in a closet—natch—and the explicit footage shows the sexual abandon and joy, but not the horror and humiliation that soon followed. The restroom in the film is a cultural and social equalizer, ensnaring men of various classes. In this case, most served several years in jail and had their lives ruined.
We will be hearing more from Jones soon. Next up is a spot in the coveted Whitney Biennial—the holy grail of emerging artists—where he will be presenting Tearoom, another found film on gay sex in bathrooms.