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William E. Jones: The secret history

Artist talks about his 2008 Whitney Biennial Film, Tearoom

Los Angeles artist William E. Jones will debut his 56-minute film, Tearoom, at Eyedrum Friday, Feb. 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.

How do you think Tearoom's acceptance into the 2008 Whitney Biennial will change its reception?

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.

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?

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, www.williamejones.com.

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. Editor's note: Wood is Felicia Feaster's husband. 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.

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?

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.

I heard you were unhappy with how one of the screenings forTearoom went, at the Warhol Museum. Was it shown in a different context than you would have liked? Can you talk about that?

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.

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?

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.

What does the title Tearoom mean?

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.

As many have pointed out, anonymous gay bathroom sex hasn't gone out of fashion since 1962, as Idaho Sen. 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?

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 a historical artifact. Presented in the aftermath of Sen. 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.

Tell me briefly about your upbringing in Canton, Ohio, and how it has informed your work. 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?

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.

What kind of responses has Tearoom inspired in audiences?

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, www.2ndcannons.com.



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