Tearoom: Arresting development

Film series features Whitney Biennial artist William E. Jones

Sometime in the early 2000s, Los Angeles artist William E. Jones came across a degraded copy of a 1964 instructional film called "Camera Surveillance." And like so many things stumbled upon during an Internet troll, the content was deeply disturbing.

In the grainy video an array of men – black and white, young and old, white collar and blue collar – can be observed engaging in sexual activities of every sort in a Mansfield, Ohio, public restroom. They wear expressions of mild anxiety and restlessness, their eyes diligently trained on the bathroom door, wary of interlopers. Dressed in porkpie hats and ties, or lumpen and macho, the men suggest a blue-movie version of "The Honeymooners." In their variety, these wildly diverse men are a revelatory vision of closeted gay life circa 1962, when the actual surveillance footage was shot.

The footage was part of a police bust meant to capture "sex deviates" in the sensational vernacular of the city's Mansfield News-Journal. Dozens of men were arrested in the sting operation, their lives irreparably changed. Jones was able to obtain the original surveillance footage from Atlantan Bret Wood (in full disclosure, my husband). Wood had included the footage in his documentary about highway safety films, Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films.

What might have struck some as a creepy cultural oddity inspired Jones. "Camera Surveillance" was rich fodder for an artist who has often worked with found material and with gay themes. He slightly modified the surveillance footage and dubbed the film Tearoom, slang for a public bathroom where men meet for sex. Tearoom was selected for the prestigious 2008 Whitney Biennial in March.

Jones grew up in Massillon, Ohio, just an hour away from Mansfield. For Jones, the footage was evidence of everything beneath the surface of his own Midwestern reality. It is a document of America's secret history and a sexual subculture where "toilets in department stores, in parks, along public highways and even in county courthouses were hotbeds of tearoom trade."

"Tearoom may be the truest documentary of public sex before the gay liberation movement," Jones says.

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