MORE INTERVIEWS WITH WILLIAM E. JONES
Luigi Fassi, “Sexuality as a Utopian Promise,” Mousse, no. 17, pp. 52-55.
William E. Jones is the author of cult works that directly and ruthlessly disclose the intertwinement of sexuality and social control, focusing on sex as a practice of utopian freedom, a radically explosive field of identity and politics. Porn movies from the Seventies, autobiographical fragments and material from police investigations are astonishingly combined in his work, presenting an unexpected, disturbing overview of American social history over the last forty years.
To approach your work , it’s useful to talk about your professional activities and your background. I know you work as art professor in Los Angeles, and you’re also involved in the gay adult industry. Is that right?
I teach in various art schools in Southern California. Until recently, I also worked for Larry Flynt, producing a line of DVD compilations of material in the archives. Through various acquisitions, Flynt now has a library of approximately 750 gay porn titles produced from 1970 to 1999. My job was to make bargain DVDs (4 hours for $10) composed of scenes from these old movies. Now that many people get access to porn via the internet, the appeal of such DVDs is limited. When the line of DVDs I produced was no longer profitable, it was discontinued, and I was laid off.
What interests me most in your work is the way in which it deals with desire. In many of your works, the dynamic of desire is inextricably interwoven with the awareness of social control and repression. It’s a sort of dialectical contrast which makes your art so intriguing, joining together romanticism and struggle, nostalgia and subversion.
A work that invokes desire without acknowledging some wider context may be pleasant and digestible, but it doesn’t particularly interest me. Sexuality can be an agent of social control, as anyone can see by turning on a television. But it also has a utopian promise, something that cannot (yet) be reduced to a coercive formula, an enforced cheerfulness, a new style of conformity. The pursuit of sex allows people of different social and economic groups to mix. I suppose what I say is tinged with a nostalgia for homosexuality’s former outlaw status, at least in the capitalist west. Is it possible for people to be free as sexual beings, rather than resigning themselves to being “good citizens” acquiring partners, real estate, children, etc.? Perhaps a satisfactory answer to that question is one of the things I am looking for when I make my work.
So you look back to the homosexuality’s former outlaw in US as a time where paradoxically sex was still able to open up a space for resistance and individual-collective agency? That sounds really interesting, because it asks the question whether homosexuality could and still can be analyzed as a cultural niche able to resist or even disrupt the power of capitalism and commodification of personal relations.
This is a difficult question to endorse fully, because I have always believed in the struggle for gay rights, and I don’t wish to take back any of the advances of the movement. To situate my answer within the realm of contemporary American politics, I think that the recent legal maneuvering around the issue of marriage has had the effect of silencing much dissent among queer people. We did not bring the marriage question to the discussion; it was imposed upon us by our adversaries. The political strategy meetings where “gay leaders” replaced universal health care with marriage equality as the main goal of the American gay rights movement were a catastrophe from which we will not recover for a long time.
Sexuality becomes a tool of political and social critique through all your work, as in The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography which shows the brutal exploitation of young men in the porno industry run with western money after 1989 in Budapest, Prague and Moscow. Can you tell me more about the way in which you consider the relation between sexuality and politics?
In the socialist east, political power was not dependent upon money at all, though one did get material rewards for loyalty to the party. In America, where our recently elected president raised nearly a billion dollars in campaign funds, everyone with the slightest degree of political awareness knows that money and political power are connected. The young men who appeared in post-1989 Eastern European porn were just figuring this out, and clearly would do almost anything for money. What kind of power could they exert in this context? They had only their bodies, their availability as sex objects, to use.
Your most intense work to me is Tearoom, showed this year at the Whitney Biennial. Together with Mansfield 1962, it’s a very raw footage, encompassing all the themes going through your work and stressing the strategies of social control. Can you tell me how the work was born and you got interested in the whole story?
The historical circumstances of Tearoom were not especially well known, but they had a personal importance for me. I was born in 1962, during the period between the arrests in the case and the first appearance of the suspects in court. Mansfield, Ohio is an hour’s drive away from my hometown of Massillon. While I was growing up, no one ever talked about the dozens of men convicted of sodomy or the tactics used to round them up. I knew nothing at all about the cases until I happened to find a film about them on the internet.
Some years ago I found a police instructional film called Camera Surveillance. It made use of amazing surveillance footage of men having sex in a public rest room. This film inspired me to do a substantial amount of research and was the basis of my video Mansfield 1962. Later, a friend gave me the email address of someone he thought would know about the original police surveillance footage. This man, the filmmaker Bret Wood, told me that a former Mansfield Chief of Police had been keeping the footage in his garage for many years. When Wood asked about it, he simply handed it to him. Wood very generously allowed me to use this footage. My first viewing of the tape was one of the most intense experiences I have had as a spectator. I then attempted to make various interventions in the material, but none of them “improved” it in any way. I ultimately decided not to modify it. Tearoom is essentially a found object, partly because I wanted to retain the sense of awe I had when I saw the footage for the first time.
My lack of intervention also makes a great multiplicity of readings possible. A central paradox of Tearoom: it is strictly “factual” and was made with very specific intentions, and yet it is mysterious.
In All Male Mash Up, you present a editing of hundred of hours of gay porn movies from the sixties onwards, focusing its marginalia, such as urban landscapes and dialog scenes, without featuring any sex scenes. The characters vary from workers to motorbikers, from swimmers to cops, transmitting an unexpected and fascinating image of the American social history of the last forty years. Nostalgia and loneliness appear to be the main ingredients of these documents. What do you think makes these forgotten materials so effective, seen after a few decades?
The people who best remember these movies and the milieu they record often fail to see the interest in All Male Mash Up. The work has a much more powerful effect on people who were not even born when some of these scenes were shot. This leads me to conclude that nostalgia is almost entirely synthetic. I suppose Roland Barthes said something like this (far better) decades ago, but I slowly come to my conclusions in my own way.
The clone generation that features prominently in All Male Mash Up became the most independent group of urban men in American history. They had sufficient access to money, space and friendly social networks to be lone sexual beings, amusing themselves when they chose with sex, drugs and disco. Though they were the pioneers of western hyperconsumerism, the presence of so many single gay men pursuing frankly sexual interests threatened conservative notions of the nuclear family, the model unit of capitalist society. As we all know, AIDS brought this glamorous social experiment to an abrupt halt. Men who had lived by and for themselves suddenly had to be cared for; non-stop celebration became non-stop mourning.
The ambiguity of nostalgia as a synthetic feeling is really an interesting issue in your works. You seem to activate an epistemological shift in the relations between reality and fiction in your works, opening up a new and unexpected dimension of meaning.
What interests me in the material I use – and this holds true for any fiction film – is what I call a “documentary effect.” As years pass, fashions, urban landscapes and social forms all change, and the intense interest of spectators begins to break down. Instead of paying attention to the heroine about to be rescued from the top of a building, we notice that the building itself no longer exists in our world. The fiction film eventually becomes a documentary of its own making, a collection of images of dead people miming obsolete social mores in spaces no longer extant. At that point, which could be called the point of diegetic failure, a film can become another object entirely, one superior to the object intended by its makers. Films take on a whole new life and become available to our imaginations in exciting new ways. Porn films, which are generally understood as purely functional, can achieve a radical new status after many years. They no longer hold much commercial appeal, but to those looking for traces of the gay life of the past, even in highly contrived forms, they are a treasure trove.
How do you judge the art scene in Los Angeles in this moment?
Los Angeles’ art scene has been formed by a number of different, contradictory forces. The presence of the entertainment industry reinforces a kind of conservatism, one perhaps with a narcissistic edge. The lack of significant local support for artists compels us to travel constantly, so the provincialism that once plagued Los Angeles art can hardly be said to exist anymore.
Many are now speculating about the effects of the recent “correction” in the art market. Optimists look forward to smarter and more adventurous art from Los Angeles. Pessimists expect a retrenchment, a reiteration of this city’s near-compulsory embrace of traditional painting. My own personal position in all this is fairly simple: I produced work on an extreme economy of means before the crash, and I will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
Stuart Comer, “William E. Jones,” Tank, vol. 5, no. 4 (Summer 2008) pp. 162-163.
Until recently, William E. Jones’ documentary films revolved around “revealing the previously unexamined historical content in the marginalia of gay porn” without actually featuring any sex. His most recent work, though – 45 year old police undercover footage – finally gives sex a starring role. While in Beirut for a conference, Jones talked to Tate Modern curator Stuart Comer about Hollywood’s relationship with gay porn, the excesses of the internet and kids today.
Stuart Comer: Your first film Massillon pits exactly that kind of highly personal recollection of your sexual awakening against a striking Rust Belt landscape of Great American Institutions: Church, State, School, Law, Library, Industry, and the Road. Your subsequent work generally has addressed pornography as both a rich subculture and another essential component of the American cultural and political matrix. Why have you decided to position gay porn within a broader continuum of ‘legitimate’ art, cinema and image-making?
William E. Jones: In America a pervasive sense of puritanism has done violence to our visual culture. It goes beyond censorship, although that has its place in the discussion as well. The division between the realm of the explicit (pornography) and the non-explicit (the mass media) serves to legitimate the latter, but really the two realms exist in symbiosis. Where would porn movies get their best titles, if not mainstream movies? And, more importantly, where would gay men of a certain disposition, geographic isolation, or social class learn how to have sex? For many years Hollywood gave gay men little other than a guide to being invisible, then committing suicide. Consequently, porn occupies a place in old school gay culture that it could never have in the culture at large. These circumstances had a major impact on careers, as has been widely noted. In this regard, I’d like to mention Tom De Simone, a filmmaker of talent who emerged in the early 1970s. At that time he was unable to direct dramatic films with gay themes in Hollywood, so he made narrative gay porn films, often under the pseudonym Lancer Brooks, including the remarkable The Idol.
As a fan of movies, I entertain the utopian notion that there isn’t porn on one hand and theatrical film on the other; it’s all cinema. This disregard of boundaries that I have come to see as arbitrary has led me to embrace (along with pornography) instructional films, home movies, and surveillance footage, all of which I have used in my work. Among the artifacts dismissed as marginal true revelations can be found.
SC: Tearoom, your most recent film, is frequently lumped together with your work around pornography, but is in fact police surveillance footage and not pornography at all. What is the relationship between these bodies of work, and how would you distinguish your approach to appropriation in both?
WEJ: I have challenged audiences’ conventional genre expectations, perhaps most outrageously in Finished (1997) a porn star biography without any sex. My works that derive from vintage gay porn are also quite chaste. In videos such as v. o. and All Male Mash Up (both 2006) I am interested in revealing previously unexamined historical content in the marginalia of gay porn. It is a project that continues the work of The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998) which begins with the line, “Even in an unlikely place, it is possible to find traces of recent history.” Insertion shots and “money” shots have changed little in the last 40 years, aside from the introduction of condoms to mainstream gay porn. As far as I’m concerned, purely functional, commercial representations of the sex act have little to say to us. On the other hand, the scenes that most consumers ignore – establishing shots, dialogue sequences, and almost random details of décor – speak volumes.
I had always withheld explicit sex from the work. I was holding out for an important reason to show it. Finally, I found my justification for a sex film in the context of an indictment of the police. Essentially a found object, Tearoom (1962/2007) consists of unedited police surveillance footage that was presented as evidence in court. I thought it was important to impose as few of my own decisions on the material as possible. The cameraman who shot the footage made many decisions about duration of shots, camera angles and subjects. For instance, when an attractive young man enters the men’s room, the camera seems to devour him, and I want the audience to see that. I also want the audience to give thought to what is not seen in the footage: hours of dead time, and most importantly, a reverse angle of the man doing the observing. All we see are fleeting reflections. The Mansfield, Ohio Police Department put the footage to use when it prosecuted dozens of men for having sex in public. They later used it in Camera Surveillance, an instructional film they produced to show how to make such arrests. In these cases, the intended audiences (jurors, policemen) were told what to think about the footage at all times. I am interested in a contemporary audience having an experience more like that of watching an experimental film – Tearoom is presented completely silent – and coming to their own conclusions about what they are seeing. It may even be possible to understand through a brief immersion what gay sex before liberation was like. There is certainly something profoundly unsettling about watching this material in public and in close proximity to other spectators. Even people who disapprove of my exhibiting the footage admit to being aroused by it. Tearoom brings out something at once complicated, raw, and primal in spectators. Perhaps it has something in common with pornography after all.
SC: Porn is seen to be something that addresses or fulfills immediate needs, usually with a degree of anonymity. Your project treats it not only as a rich historical archive of images, gestures and politics, but draws out individual personalities for considerable research. Perhaps you could discuss how this process led you to the filmmaker Fred Halsted, and where your current investigations into his life and work are taking you.
WEJ: Fred Halsted’s early work held the promise of a new genre: the sexually explicit, autobiographical experimental film. In this respect, it anticipated the work of George Kuchar’s protégé, Curt McDowell, who also awaits his proper place in film history. Through the late 70s and 1980s, as “gay cinema” became progressively more commercial and tame, and porno adhered more closely to its own conventions, the breakthrough moment that Halsted was waiting for never came. He died in 1989, so he didn’t live long enough to see key aspects of his aesthetic explored by Bruce La Bruce.
An important part of my practice involves looking for continuities across generations and factions that in their day didn’t speak to one another. A sense of historical discontinuity and disavowal has nearly blinded young gay men to the amazing riches created by their predecessors. This body of films and videos forms a tradition available for reinvention; it also provides hints on how to raise some hell and have some fun.
When I first saw Fred Halsted’s L. A. Plays Itself, I thought it was, from the point of view of aesthetics, the greatest gay porn film. Nothing in the thousands of films I have seen since then has changed that original conviction. Not everyone shares my opinion. When I met Chantal Akerman in the late 1990s, I mentioned more or less by chance my interest in L. A. Plays Itself. She gave me a perplexed look. How could anyone devote serious attention to such a movie? I asked her how she had seen it. She told me that in 1972 she had worked in the ticket booth of New York’s 55th Street Playhouse. Her co-worker, a statuesque drag queen who called everyone regardless of sex or station in life “Miss Thing,” taught her the useful skill of stealing from the box office. During her tenure as ticket girl, Chantal managed to skim $4000 from the receipts. At that time, the sum was enough to fund the short La Chambre and Hotel Monterey, her first long film. L. A. Plays Itself was the film playing during the entire period of her lucrative job. In an important sense, Fred Halsted helped Akerman at a formative stage of her career. Some years after I heard her story, it appeared in Chantal Akerman. Autoportrait en cinéma, though in this version, she doesn’t mention her absent and unwitting benefactor’s name.
This conversation may have had further repercussions in the history of cinema. It took place in the house of Thom Andersen, who at that time was just beginning the massive project of researching how Los Angeles has been represented in films. A while later, he borrowed my Halsted tape for use in his compilation film, which bears the title Los Angeles Plays Itself.
As soon as I had the opportunity to teach an experimental film course, I showed Fred Halsted’s work. I chose Sex Garage (a short film Fred shot in 1972 while he was waiting for L. A. Plays Itself to have its theatrical release) because the version of L. A. Plays Itself that was available on video had been mutilated. The video’s distributors removed the final fisting scene because they considered it likely to attract the attention of federal law enforcement authorities. In the present legal climate, there is little hope that the climax of the film will ever be restored for commercial release. I taught this course as a sabbatical replacement for film scholar William Moritz. I found out much later that Moritz and Halsted were in the same graduating class of Abraham Lincoln High School in San Jose. Unfortunately, he died of cancer in 2004, before I got the chance to ask him about his former classmate. Still, Moritz will have his place in the work. Only recently I found a positive, thoughtful review of Halsted’s 1975 film Sextool that Moritz had written for Entertainment West, a Los Angeles independent gay magazine that ceased publication long ago.
SC: You recently commented that the moment you present sex in your work, no one is happy: it’s either too much or not enough. Do you think our societal inability to deal easily with pleasure and eroticism and our tendency towards cultural and historical amnesia go hand in hand?
WEJ: I hesitate to generalize about these questions. I can only make a few remarks on what I notice in teaching. I suspect that the students in my classes feel a revulsion toward the devastation of AIDS – I hope not toward the people who have it – and a jealousy of the hedonism their parents’ generation enjoyed, yet they are too polite or inarticulate to voice their reaction. They say that they’ve seen it all, but they’ve actually seen very little; they’ve just spent a lot of time on the internet. Today we are faced with an unprecedented barrage of consumer choices. An immediacy and a leveling of distinctions, while potentially radical and enriching, often has the effect of depriving young people of a sense of history accumulated through lived experience. From their point of view, how can films by Carolee Schneemann or Kurt Kren, to site only a couple of examples, compare with the access (and excess) of YouTube, DudeTube, XTube, UbuWeb? At the same time, I don’t get the impression that these kids, for all the world-weariness, are getting much sex.
I must admit that it would be hypocritical for me to condemn the youth of today. I was once a grad student, and I was annoyed by tales of the “good old days” that happened right before I arrived on the scene. I also have my own regrets. I was far too dismissive of the hippy gender benders who made their impression in the early 70s, and of the gay clone culture that wiped all that away a few years later. I was young. What the hell did I know? I should have spent more time talking to my elders.
Marcia Scott, “What the Hell Is That?: Uncovering Secret Histories and Questioning the Boundaries of Art,” Film Arts, vol. 31, no 1. (January/February 2008) pp. 38-39.
William E. Jones asks questions. In recent work he has been asking questions of found footage. After finishing Is It Really So Strange?, about Latino fans of British crooner Morrissey, Jones wanted to make videos that required less production; appropriating footage was the obvious choice.
In 2006 he made four films, including v. o. and Film Montages (for Peter Roehr). This year, he began presenting Tearoom (1962/2007). In each film Jones employs a different strategy for unearthing latent meanings, always contributing his keen sense of history and genuine affection for the stigmatized and forgotten material he uses. I was fortunate enough to meet Jones after a screening at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Jones describes v. o. as “a variation on what DJs call a ‘mash-up’.” Using sources with little to no commercial distribution, he combined scenes from gay porn produced before 1985 (the last year 16mm was used) with sound largely from European art films (by Renoir, Schroeter, Buñuel, Debord, among others), and notably, from an ornery interview with the French writer Jean Genet. Jones’ provocative vignettes resist easy assumptions and illuminate neglected margins of gay experiences and history. The porn excerpts, for example, are notable for their slow pace, their texture of place, their beauty. I asked him about their significance:
I’ve heard the complaint that I have cut the sex out of pornography, but I prefer to see what I do as emphasizing gay porn’s margins, where the most idiosyncratic, least redundant aspects of the films can be found. One advantage of using scenes that are often quite sexual, but not explicit, is that my work does not necessarily exclude anyone. Most of the people who come screenings of v. o. are cinephiles. If I addressed only gay men interested in porn, I would be better off just making porn.
The industrialization of gay porn took place over a period of 15 years from the time of the first public screenings of sex scenes, or “loops,” in 1969. At first, directors who wanted to make gay-themed movies, but who were denied access to the mainstream film industry, and experimental filmmakers who were interested in filming sex, could produce interesting porn. Slowly, their personal ambitions were subsumed to the exigencies of industrial production. Here is a concrete example: in the early 1970s it was possible to have an hour-long gay porn film that included only 20 minutes of sex. (That was the case with L. A. Plays Itself.) By the mid-1980s, any less than 50 minutes of sex in an hour long video was unacceptable.
The adult video industry of the present day has reached a critical moment. Straight porn production has slowed considerably in Los Angeles, and most of what little gay porn production there is has moved to San Francisco. This shift has happened very recently and very quickly. Although the industry still makes immense profits, few (if any) people can support themselves exclusively as porn directors. The very idea of a gay porn movie embodied in a discrete object like a DVD is being abandoned, in favor of pay-per-view scenes on the internet. The requirements of that form are incredibly restrictive, and I doubt that anyone will be able to inject some interest into the genre, let alone make a masterpiece.
I am fascinated by what is left behind in successive waves of obsolescence. I think that it is possible – even necessary – to treat gay porn films as historical artifacts, though nothing could be further from the original intentions of their makers. Various disruptions, brought about by developments in capitalism, by the devastation of AIDS, by new forms of political reaction, have erased a whole world. Curiously enough, pornography is one of the best places to look to gain an understanding of what has been lost.
When asked about all the shots of antiquated audio equipment in his videos, Jones had the following response:
Joe Gage loved to explore the erotics of the recorded voice. The most obvious example is in one of his best movies, Handsome, about which James McCourt wrote an excellent appreciation in his book Queer Street. The separation of the voice from the image in that film is one of the inspirations for v. o., though this strategy has been prevalent in my work from the beginning, in one way or another.
The quality of sound systems was a great and abiding obsession in 1970s gay culture. At the time, all of this was considered “high tech,” but now it is the focus of fond, nostalgic feelings. The sound of analogue synthesizers in porn film soundtracks contributes to this sense of the antiquated. When I showed some of my recent work to a young gallerist who is also a musician, he became quite excited and said, “No one makes music like that anymore.”
Peter Roehr was a German artist from the 1960s who died young; he created montages by isolating and repeating fragments of advertisements. In Film Montages (for Peter Roehr), Jones loops both the sound and the image of non-explicit gay porn footage up to eight times in succession. Though the principle is simple, my experience of Film Montages was revelatory. While some images expectedly became more familiar, others seemed to grew distorted. As the number of repetitions increased, both the act of repetition itself and the tone of the represented sex came to feel more aggressive, in my view even grim. In an essay on Roehr, Jones writes, “The noises of daily life under capitalism, estranged from meaningful contexts and arranged in musical compositions, threaten to derange the senses of listeners. The irritation that characterizes effective advertising gets intensified, at times almost beyond endurance. Lifting the principle of repetition from Warhol, LeWitt et al, applying it to film and taking it to an extreme, Roehr makes manifest a certain sadism latent in the modernist enterprise.” I asked Jones about these complex issues of aggression in form and content.
I admire Susan Sontag’s defense of excruciation in works of art. As she herself admitted, she staked out her position before seriousness became an outmoded value and the truly unbearable overtook mass culture. Now “the worst film ever made” has become its own genre, with practitioners such as Michael Bay bludgeoning audiences with every new movie. Compared to these enormities, the sadism one can detect in modernist art seems positively charming. I don’t assert this to belittle modernism; I only wish to suggest a sense of proportion for the question.
I made Film Montages (for Peter Roehr) out of my love for Roehr’s underrated work and for the voluptuously degraded, sleazy video footage that I used as source material. I have never been able to trace the S/M scenes at the end of the video, so they have a certain mystery about them. I don’t find them grim at all. In the context of porn, standardization is grim. (I should mention that looking at hundreds of hours of it in my job as a producer of DVD compilations of gay porn films from the archive has informed my judgment.) I am attracted to whatever moves me to ask, “What the hell is that?” in porn as well as in films for general consumption. I aspire to make movies that provoke a similar response.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts wrote the following in their program: “Given the increasing reluctance of many gay and lesbian film festivals to show experimental cinema, this opportunity to experience Jones’ unique vision is all the more vital.” Jones comments on what in his view accounts for this increasing reluctance, or more generally on the state of experimental cinema, gay or otherwise:
I consider my project analogous to poetry or experimental literature. I make works on an economy of means (in digital video, using appropriated footage) but the audience, while devoted and engaged, is small. As long as I don’t depend on earning a living from my endeavors, I can continue.
When I began attending gay and lesbian film festivals, I was interested in seeing experimental work unlikely to get distribution in the United States. Examples included some of the films I later used in v. o., like those of Werner Schroeter or Heinz Emigholz. In the hope of attracting the largest, broadest audience, contemporary gay and lesbian festivals concentrate on films likely to get at least an eventual DVD release. These festivals are more involved in uniting and affirming a community, and indulge little of the old cinephilia. There are interesting exceptions to this trend, for instance MIX, but they are definitely programming against the grain.
I have often threatened to withdraw entirely from the gay and lesbian film festival circuit, and finally it seems that the programmers are making that decision for me. Hardly any festivals committed to showing Film Montages (for Peter Roehr), even though it is one of my personal favorites. (To be fair, I can’t imagine the short film program that could accommodate such a work.) I have no complaints. My career doesn’t seem to have suffered from this indifference.
v. o. uses appropriation to rescue and renew largely forgotten cultural histories; Film Montages treats similar material more formally and abstractly. With Tearoom, however, Jones addresses the ethics of appropriation with new and bracing directness. In Mansfield, Ohio in 1962, police learned that the men’s bathroom under the town’s central square was a rendezvous for “sex deviates.” Using a two-way mirror and a law that defines common spaces outside the stalls as “public,” two men took turns filming the sexual encounters over two months – a sting operation that secured the conviction of 31 men for sodomy.
Jones tried to incorporate the footage into a documentary, but after multiple versions (in each he intervened less) he decided that the footage was strongest on its own. What results is a historical document whose significance has compounded since it was first used as evidence: every camera movement, every gesture, every interaction, every physiognomy becomes hauntingly relevant. Acutely sensitive to the disturbing circumstances and extreme intimacy of this document, Jones chooses to present it personally, following screenings with public discussions. His decision to present it at all can excite controversy; but in my view Jones honors its unwitting actors by presenting them as individuals without dehumanizing black bars over their faces. He respects us by not interpreting, by giving us the redemptive opportunity to ask the difficult question, “What is that?” Jones posts information and historical documents about the case on his website – the perfect forum for accommodating Tearoom’s expanding content, Tearoom will be shown in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, and Jones is finishing a book to accompany it.
After the sting, the bathroom was sealed off and Jones said no trace of it remains. He remarked that the central square is littered with monuments, and suggestively asked what kind of monument would be appropriate to honor these men – a humorous question, but one that poignantly reminded us of the significance of what we had just witnessed.
Felicia Feaster, “William E. Jones: The Secret History” creativeloafing.com, February 20, 2008.
Los Angeles artist William E. Jones will debut his 56-minute film, Tearoom, at Eyedrum, Friday, February 22, at 8 p.m. The film, which will appear at the March 2008 Whitney Biennial, is a found document of a 1962 Mansfield, Ohio, police bust. Ohio police set up hidden cameras in a Mansfield public restroom hoping to catch sexual activity. What they found was men from all walks of life engaged in what in the early ’60s constituted a furtive homosexual subculture. I had a chance recently to speak to Jones about the film he has made based on that police footage.
FELICIA FEASTER: How do you think Tearoom’s acceptance into the 2008 Whitney Biennial will change its reception?
WILLIAM E. JONES: I think it’s great that the Biennial curators have chosen to include a found object in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum. Something comparable happened when the Rodney King beating video shot by George Holliday, who was not a professional artist, appeared in the 1993 Biennial. I was also in that Biennial, and my entry in the catalog comes right after George Holliday’s. Fifteen years later, I am back at the Whitney Museum presenting a document of another of law enforcement’s excesses, though not one that caused an uprising. I can’t predict how Tearoom will change in this context, though it may make an interesting addition to an art-world institution often criticized for eschewing politics and ratifying decisions already made by the market.
FEASTER: Where and when did you first see the film on which Tearoom is based? How did you get a copy? There is an Atlanta connection?
JONES: I originally found some of the footage on the internet. On the Planet Out website, in alphabetical order immediately before my own film Massillon, was an entry called “Mansfield, Ohio, Tearoom Busts.” There was a degraded copy of a film called Camera Surveillance. Produced by the Mansfield police and intended as an instructional film, Camera Surveillance demonstrated how the department had set up a sting operation in the tearoom under the central square of the city. The voice-over narration, as illiterate and hateful a text as I have ever heard committed to film, attested to the police’s unenlightened attitudes. While I knew that these attitudes existed – indeed, they still do – in Camera Surveillance I saw that they were not only acknowledged as official policy, but held up as a standard for other police forces to imitate.
Camera Surveillance inspired me to produce a work about the busts. I chose to re-edit the material I found and to present it silent, without commentary. I considered the voice-over narration distracting and the images powerful (and self-explanatory) enough to stand on their own. Since that time, Camera Surveillance has vanished from the internet, while Mansfield 1962 can be seen on my website.
While I was at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, doing post-production work on other videos, I continued to research the cases relating to Mansfield 1962 at the Ohio Historical Society. Someone at the Wexner put me in touch with Bret Wood, the director of Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films. Part of that film deals with the tearoom busts, since Highway Safety Foundation in Mansfield lent the police the equipment they used to shoot the evidence footage. Hell’s Highway includes very brief excerpts of this film. Unlike the source of Mansfield 1962, this material is in vibrant color. I asked Wood where he had found the footage, and if I could use it for my own work. He had gotten it from a former Mansfield chief of police, who had been storing the film in his garage for years. The two of them donated the film to the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. Wood made a video transfer of the film before giving it to Kinsey, and it is a copy of this tape that he generously allowed me to use to make Tearoom.
FEASTER: You initially thought about using the footage for a documentary project, but decided to just show it “as is” to some extent. Why did you decide to exhibit the film this way? Have you manipulated the film in any way?
JONES: Aside from opening and closing titles, I changed the footage in one way. I took the last reel of the footage, which contained images of the location and of the police walking through the restroom where they did their surveillance, and placed it at the beginning of Tearoom, so that it could function as an establishing sequence. I present the surveillance footage as it was shot and assembled in chronological order by the police.
I don’t want to obscure the actions of the police by imposing my own decisions on the material. The footage was not the product of an automatic camera. It required people to operate it. While shooting this footage, the police cameramen, Bill Spognardi and Dick Burton, made many decisions about camera position, camera movement, duration of shots, perhaps even choice of subject. The decisions regarding what and when to shoot were effectively judgments of which men – and indeed, which parts of men’s bodies – were worth scrutinizing. I want to preserve the cameramen’s decisions so that spectators can take a look at them and form their own ideas about what was going on. Tearoom is evidence of men engaging in criminal activities under the eye of the law, but it is also a record of men hiding unseen and photographing others masturbating and having sex.
When law-enforcement figures made use of the evidence footage, they accompanied it with an excess of words, in the form of prosecutor’s statements or voice-over narration. The images served as an instrument of domination, and the people who watched them were told at all times how to see them. I present these images unedited and silent so that spectators can have a respite from authority’s attempts to direct their thoughts.
I have to say, having seen the film before, what I found most disturbing was the look of utter detachment and lack of emotion on the men’s faces. It’s not a vision of sex you’d call “joyful” or even cathartic. What about the video piqued your interest and made you want to create an art object out of it?
Tearoom may be the truest documentary of public sex before the gay liberation movement. Certainly no one in it is performing for the camera. I was talking about the detachment you mention with the artist Charlie White only recently. He sees the expressions and postures of the men in Tearoom as being indicative of the era before porn taught men how to have sex, or at least how to look and sound while they have it.
Someone watching and listening for intruders can hardly get much obvious joy from furtive sex, at least in the moment. But these experiences acquire another flavor in the retelling, as the men who have contributed to the journal Straight to Hell remind us. Those who engage in public sex have a special body of knowledge. They have proof that many men are not as “normal” as they would have us believe, and they are in a very good position to understand their society’s hypocrisy.
FEASTER: I heard you were unhappy with how one of the screenings for Tearoom went, at the Warhol Museum. Was it shown in a different context than you would have liked? Can you talk about that?
JONES: I think Andy Warhol – as director, not as producer – was a great filmmaker, and his films constitute the most remarkable part of his achievement as an artist. I presumed to give Tearoom a Warholian title – impersonal, generic, yet evocative in one word – as a tribute to him but also as a way of raising the question of his work’s relation to my own. To present Tearoom at the Andy Warhol Museum was a wonderful opportunity, but the screening turned out somewhat differently than I had hoped. After showing Tearoom, the curator, who did so with the best intentions, also showed Camera Surveillance and another instructional film that includes Mansfield footage, The Child Molester. These other films have repugnant, overdetermined soundtracks, and they made the audience very angry. The question-and-answer session turned into a forum for spectators to express their opinions on a local crackdown on public sex and on the impropriety of me showing police evidence footage in public. Though the event was a film screening in an art museum, none of the questions I took from the audience directly related to film or art. People lost sight of the pure fascination of the film, the experience of watching ordinary men have sex with each other in a recent, yet somehow remote, historical era. After the Warhol Museum screening, I decided to avoid presenting Tearoom in screening programs with other works. It is a unique document, and it deserves to have its own context.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the Pittsburgh audience’s reaction. My works tend to be controversial. This leads to all sorts of interesting discussions, some of them quite heated. Confounding conventional expectations is a worthy goal for a filmmaker, but the consequences can be personally uncomfortable.
FEASTER: You have worked in documentary, video art and photography. How does Tearoom deal with themes in your other works? You work a lot with found footage. Can you talk about what this kind of footage intended for use in one arena, and appropriated for another, means to you?
JONES: Of all my works, Tearoom most closely resembles the first, Massillon, so there is the sense of my practice coming full circle. The project of researching legal aspects of sex is over for me, at least for now. In my previous films and videos, I had always avoided sexually explicit images, but in Tearoom, spectators finally get to see sex, albeit in a way that may not please them.
Quite a lot of film criticism since the 1950s concentrates on the notion of directorial style, especially visual style. I wish to question what it means to have a style, and whether it is even necessary to have one. In my first works, I felt compelled to emphasize that I was making an artistic statement. I now want to see what happens if I forgo that effort. Perhaps simply choosing an artifact and providing it with a new context is enough. I make no claims on the genre of the found footage film, but appropriation is a word that interests me very much. I suppose I am simply applying to film a strategy that artists have been using for decades. I am a slow learner.
There are also practical aspects of these decisions. I started what is conventionally known as a career with the notion that I could be an experimental filmmaker. People still pursue this activity in the U.S., but they tend to be what was once called “mechanically inclined” or they have the institutional support of a school where they teach. Neither of these conditions really apply to me, so I have had to adapt.
Partly due to circumstances beyond my control, and partly as the result of guile and tenacity, I am now being embraced by the art world. I think that this environment may be the best one for sustaining the practice I have developed over the years.
FEASTER: What does the title Tearoom mean?
JONES: A tearoom is a public restroom used for brief, anonymous sexual encounters. The origins of the term are unknown. The word possibly derives from British slang use of the word “tea” to mean urine. No one can specify the historical origins of meeting in bathrooms to have sex, but the practice is certainly nothing new. Before every large American city had a selection of legal, safe gay bars, the tearoom was the main meeting place for men who wished to have sex with other men. According to the testimony of many older gay men, sexual activity in restrooms was widespread and constant in the Midwest of the early 1960s. Toilets in department stores, in parks, along public highways and even in county courthouses were hotbeds of tearoom trade.
FEASTER: As many have pointed out, anonymous gay bathroom sex hasn’t gone out of fashion since 1962, as Idaho Senator Larry Craig recently reminded us. And Atlanta police have also recently been doing undercover sting operations at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Is Tearoom part of this larger matter of public sex, or is it tied in your mind, to the past?
JONES: Public sex is never going away, though bars, bathhouses and now the Internet provide convenient venues for many people to make contacts. Mansfield, Ohio, I should point out, still has no gay bar. Even men in urban areas with strong gay communities frequent tearooms, if they are looking for anonymity and danger. And of course, the closet still holds an appeal for a few die-hards.
I think it is important to respect Tearoom as an historical artifact. Presented in the aftermath of Senator Craig’s recent publicity, Tearoom appears to be the forerunner not only of contemporary surveillance culture but of a media landscape saturated with cynicism and moral panic. When the Mansfield police shot the footage and disseminated some of it in an instructional film, their work was unique. No other police department could afford such a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. In a way, Mansfield’s film is isolated in history. Digital video, fiber optics, night vision and the like have made such an operation a practical possibility, but it may no longer be legal. Most of the success with this kind of surveillance has actually been in observing company locker rooms, where union organizing, rather than sexual intercourse, tends to happen.
FEASTER: Obviously Tearoom ties in to your past in Ohio. Can you talk about that aspect? Do you think Tearoom might mean something different to you because of that Ohio backdrop?
JONES: The Mansfield tearoom busts may not be especially well-known, but they have a personal importance for me. I was born in 1962, during the period between the arrests in the case and the first appearance of the suspects in court. Mansfield is an hour’s drive away from my hometown of Massillon, Ohio. While I was growing up, no one ever talked about the dozens of men convicted or the tactics used to round them up. I knew nothing at all about the case until I happened to find Camera Surveillance on the Internet.
The most emotionally intense and memorable sequence in my first film, Massillon, is a tearoom scene. It sets a tone and provides an introduction to the final third of the film, an analysis of laws proscribing sexual activity in the United States. At the time I made Massillon, I was not yet aware that another tearoom scene, this one with catastrophic legal consequences, had transpired so close to home.
When I learned about the Mansfield tearoom busts, I felt as though I had found, among other things, a confirmation of what I had written about in Massillon. I think that the case must have cast a pall on what there was of gay life in the region. The witch-hunt atmosphere that encouraged the police in their actions, and possibly remorse for the results of them, also had an effect on the moral teachings of my upbringing.
FEASTER: What kind of responses has Tearoom inspired in audiences?
JONES: It’s still a bit too early to define a trend, since few audiences have seen Tearoom. In San Francisco, there was an engaged and friendly audience; in Pittsburgh, an engaged but not so friendly audience. Screenings in Argentina, Ecuador and Hong Kong took place without me. For screenings in the United States, I insist on being present to answer audience questions – and there are many – after screenings of Tearoom. I have had to make an exception for the Whitney, because they will be showing Tearoom once a day for a period of three months. It isn’t practical for me to take up residence there, so in time for the opening of the Biennial, I prepared a book, also called Tearoom. It gathers all of the writing I could find about the cases and the film, as well as my essays about the work. It is available from an independent publisher in Los Angeles, 2ndcannons.
Ryan Lee, “Jailbait: Tearoom Exposes Hidden, Persecuted Gay Oasis in 1962” Southern Voice, February 15, 2008, pp. 23, 32.
Situated in the middle of a Mansfield, Ohio, street in 1962 was a public restroom with the aura of a prison. Submerged beneath the sidewalk, the small cellar had dreary gray brick walls, a pair of stalls with no doors, a row of five full-length urinals — and covertly, a heavy law enforcement presence.
In actuality, it was more of a holding cell, since many of the men who frequented the restroom “all had one thing in common,” according to Mansfield Police Chief John P. Butler: “They were all going to jail.”
The imprisoning essence of the Mansfield restroom goes beyond aesthetics. It was a place that welcomed arrested souls, where men who had sex with men — not many of them were called “gay” back then — fled for reprieve from a smothering world.
“The restroom where they met was literally, and in a more general sense, underground,” says William E. Jones, a gay filmmaker who chronicles the Mansfield restroom in Tearoom, a documentary comprised exclusively of footage collected during an extended undercover police raid of the facility in 1962.
Jones comes to Atlanta for a February 22 showing of Tearoom at Eyedrum Gallery.
“What the men did there was not sanctioned by the city above, but this space permitted them to act on their desires,” Jones says.
The hour-long movie transports viewers back to the bustle of the “tearoom trade” – a circuit of public spots popularly known as places where men could hookup. A transfixing silence serves as the film’s only soundtrack, part of the unfiltered, undistracted view audiences get from the time the police department installs a two-way mirror to catch a stream of hurried, forbidden rendezvous.
Jones explains his decision not to add any sound, commentary or unrelated footage to his film.
“It took me quite a while to realize that there was almost nothing my intervention could do to improve it,” he says. “I used it, essentially, as found.”
The cast of regulars who frequent the Mansfield tearoom reveals the remarkably egalitarian nature of the busy meeting spot, considering the racially charged times. White men of every age, class and body type — some of whom might otherwise be hostile to the rise of Negro rights outside the tearoom — are willing to masturbate with professional black men, or pay a young black hustler for a blow job.
Whatever their differences in the streets above the restroom, together the men found a bunker where they could explore the urges they hated and fought against for decades, a place where even society and sometimes, their own self-loathing could not overwhelm their truest desires.
“These acts had a utopian aspect, provoking people in power to close the place down and punish the participants,” Jones says. “The way that sex makes the mixing of various ages, races and classes possible — and that ordinary men availed themselves of the opportunity to explore this — shocked Mansfield’s city fathers, and the policemen who were their servants.”
Despite the relative diversity in the Mansfield restroom, there is much about Tearoom that captures the conservatism of 1960s America. The films features a ubiquitous flow of starched white dress shirts, black ties, square-framed glasses, and cigarettes being puffed on as men exit the restroom and return to their camouflaged lives.
There are also some deliciously explicit scenes that are simultaneously stimulating and deflating. It’s the most graphic parts of the movie that are the most disheartening. They capture the extent of the dehumanization gay people endured during that era.
The empty sex itself isn’t most dehumanizing, but rather the culmination of the fear and desperation the men lived in as they tried to reconcile their conflicted desires.
Fear is in the eye of nearly every man who walks into the Mansfield tearoom. During sex, most of the eyes are concentrated on the bathroom’s front door, the men visibly terrified of what it would mean to themselves, their families, their jobs, their marriages, even their status among the living, if they saw feet or shadows approaching the entryway.
When the Mansfield Police Department finished its lengthy surveillance of the underground tearoom, about 60 men were arrested and prosecuted under Ohio’s sodomy law.
An Ohio native, Jones first learned about police footage of the Mansfield bust first in a “truly awful” police training video about camera surveillance, then in the movie Hell’s Highway by Atlanta filmmaker Bret Wood. The original footage now resides at the Kinsey Institute for Research of Sex, Gender & Reproduction, and serves as visual evidence of how much gay life in America blossomed during the last half of the 20th century.
“What younger people often fail to understand is that in 1962, the very notion of being gay was simply not considered a topic worthy of public discussion in most parts of the U.S.” says Jones, who is also releasing a book entitled Tearoom.
“There has been an enormous, irreversible change in consciousness within the period of a single person’s lifetime,” he adds. “The present debates, as unappetizing and frustrating as they can be, are a definite political advance over the erasure and silence of the past.”
For all of the internal pain the men in Tearoom apparently suffered, the raw footage also captures the euphoria, however fleeting, some men were able to experience before the gay rights movement began in earnest.
“When I presented Tearoom in San Francisco, many of the people in the audience were gay seniors,” Jones says. “I expected them to be quite critical, but I got the impression that they were glad to see images that reminded them of the early 1960s.
“After the first showing, a sweet old man regaled me with tales of his own tearoom experiences, including one involving sheriff’s officers in the basement of a Midwestern county courthouse,” he says.
The issue of public sex dominated news headlines just before the release of Tearoom, following the arrest and guilty plea of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) last summer. As much as he’s asked for his opinion on the Craig situation, Jones says he wishes he could come up with a witty response, “but really, it’s all too sad and grotesque for me to crack a joke about.”
Asked his thoughts on why some men continue to cruise public restrooms in more liberated times, Jones suspects it’s a similar, primal motivation that inspired the men of the Mansfield tearoom. “There are many men who feel that some pleasures are worth grasping, in and of themselves, just for the hell of it, regardless of the risk,” Jones says.
An interview from Brazil (in Portuguese) can be seen here.