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Art and design

Out from the shadows: why cruising had a cultural moment in 2016

From an acclaimed novel to an immersive theater experience, the divisive sexual practice made a comeback in art amid heightened anxiety over sex and gender.

On a Saturday afternoon shortly before Christmas, I found myself in the dungeon-like basement of a sex club in Manhattan to see a site-specific performance called Adonis Memories. It was an immersive theater experience based upon oral histories with patrons of the Adonis movie theater, the once opulent movie house-turned-gay porn theater located off Times Square in the 70s and 80s. In its day the Adonis epitomized hedonistic group viewing of pornography, the kind of place where gay, queer and straight men could watch hardcore films together. Meanwhile, just offscreen, it was anything goes between the men in the audience, especially in the theaters infamous balcony.

The performance, the brainchild of Alan Bounville, a theater artist and activist, makes the audience contend with the gay art of cruising: the practice of fleeting sex between men, usually anonymously and without exchanging names, often in semi-public indoor spaces (bathrooms, saunas) or outdoors (rest stops, forests). Audience members watched actors re-enact Adonis patrons cruising each other, and made them complicit by having them follow the action around the space, deciding what they watched and what they didnt.

Cruising has been having something a moment in art over the past year or so, though its not as if it hasn’t been depicted in fiction and non-fiction for some time. The act has received heavy criticism for depicting gay life as deviant and inherently dangerous. The late George Michael was outed when he engaged in a lewd act in Beverly Hills in 1998, and Republican senator Larry Craig was lambasted in media in 2007 when he tapped his right foot, which an officer said was recognized as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct.

The shame was viscerally reinforced in the 1980 William Friedkin movie Cruising, in which Al Pacino must go undercover in the world of homosexual sadomasochistic sex he is assigned to infiltrate to investigate a string of murders. As Roger Ebert noted, the films controversial production did not just alarm conservatives but also the New York gay community [which] rose up in protest, worried the film would present a distorted view of gay life. It would imply the small subculture of S&M was more prevalent than it is, and that, if gays were into violence, attacks on them would somehow be justified. (James Franco was behind a less-seen riff on Friedkins film, Interior. Leather. Bar., in 2013.)

But the art of cruising is not simply about shame and self-hatred; it can also be a space of exploration and connection, as queer literature and art have reflected more recently. Its at the heart of Garth Greenwells much-lauded novel from earlier this year, What Belongs To You, in which an unnamed American narrator becomes obsessed with a sex worker named Mitko he meets in a bathroom in Bulgaria. Everything about their relationship is in the context of sex, and as Mitko and the narrator get to know one another, Greenwell presents gay male life through the prism of their complicated sex lives, moments of intimate partner violence, and the risk of sexuality transmitted disease.

That a book about cruising has been so welcomed by mainstream readers and critics, and featured on best of lists is pretty stunning. As Greenwell discussed in January, its been considered impolite to discuss not just in front of straight people, but also within gay circles until now.

cruising
Al Pacino stars in the 1980 film Cruising, directed by William Friedkin. Photograph: United Artists/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Still, Greenwell contends that cruising spaces can be spaces of exploration and empathy, ripe for artistic and emotional study. And yet, due to its inherent corporeal hedonism that Greenwell and Bounville (and visual artists Prem Sahib and John Walter) have recently depicted, its largely been left untouched as a site of study within mainstream art or literature.

The reasons for this are many. One is that apps like Grindr and Scruff have made cruising possible on your smartphone. Another is that fear of HIV/Aids made the kind of free sexual exchange depicted in the Adonis play extremely dangerous, leading municipalities to shutter many theaters, bathhouses and saunas where cruising flourished. But as Samuel Delaney describes in his beautiful 1999 book Time Square Red, Times Square Blue, cruising was also a victim of gentrification. It was victim to the pressure from real estate developers which led cities like New York to dispatch the NYPD to clean up and crack down on any form of sexual assembly, so that places like Times Square could be rebranded as family-friendly and Disney-esque.

Mayors like Rudy Giuliani were as likely to clean up Times Square of what they saw as the filth of cruising as Republicans were to publicly decry depictions of queer sexuality in art. But what of the left? Why have they protested about such depictions, from Friedkins movie until now?

I think the marriage equality battle was important and its important that we won it, Greenwall said during an onstage interview in March. But he believes that it came at a really great cost. And that cost was a marketing campaign that took queer lives and translated them into values that could be appreciated by people who are disgusted by queer people.

So while Greenwell believes our current moment has allowed for a beautiful model of human life, and it should be available to queer people, he also worries about the effects.

I think it forecloses much of the kind of radical potential in queer life. And that radical potential, I think, inheres in spaces like cruising bathrooms and parks, where the categories by which we organize our lives, like race and class, get scrambled by desire, which is a reason why our culture is so terrified by desire, because it scrambles those things, he said.

Cruising inhabits a kind of sexuality that is about seeking fleeting pleasure, allowing for bodily expression to function as free-from commitment in the same vein that same-sex marriage is tethered to commitment. The multimedia artist John Walters addressed the disappearing act by mounting the exhibit Alien Sex Maze, a large-scale installation based on the shapes of cruise mazes, found in sex clubs and gay saunas, during 2015 Pride in London. Walters wanted to raise awareness about HIV and hosted testing onsite to decrease its stigma. He said: “I’m not actively facilitating sex, in his exhibits, I advertise my work on Grindr. If people want to have sex in the spaces I do my work, thats fine. It highlights the fact that you can repurpose any space for sex.”

Then, last fall, British artist Prem Sahib had two shows in London which explictly dealt with cottaging, though the work is so clean and precise, a viewer might not know the reference unless they knew about underground gay culture. As Vice observed, the gay aspect of the work is thrilling and affirmative to anyone whos found themselves cruising in loos, losing themselves on a dance floor (preferably Berghain) or lounging listlessly in an odd sauna.

But one reason it is so surprising to see cruising being taken seriously in theater, gallery art and literature (domains which, no matter how much they may seem to foster the work of gay men, have their gates kept by straight people) is that a fear of possible cruising has been a driving force in American cultural politics. As the writer and scientist Joseph Osmundson wrote, This has been the year that cruising has reached the literary mainstream, but also the year that gay, queer, and especially trans bodies have been made criminal entities simply for existing in public bathrooms. All over the US, the threat of cruising has created a wave of transphobia, just as cruising is getting an airing in art from North Carolina’s notorious HB2 bathroom bill to 11 states suing the federal government after the Obama administration directed US public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. As Osmundson writes, it is in bathrooms that these two trends integration into the mainstream literary canon and a rightwing backlash against gay and trans progress currently meet.

It is no surprise, then, that liberals and conservatives alike have been loth to discuss cruising, particularly as the most heralded (if tacitly secure) civil rights win for LGBT people same-sex marriage is only barely accepted on the condition of queer life being mythologically private and desexualized. Bathrooms have become such a source of sexual anxiety that, according to a large survey, a majority of transgender Americans avoid public restrooms altogether.

Good art, though, should walk us right into the mess of locations of conflict. Thats why it is so rewarding when Bounville, Greenwell, Walters and Sahib take us into these shadowy spaces, where so many gay connections have happened (and still happen). Cruising sites are spaces of gay censure and celebration alike, tense with the possibilities of danger and connection at the same time. They straddle the boundaries of the public and private, the respectable and the reviled. Cruising spaces may never be wholly resolved and thus they remain ripe for art.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/dec/29/cruising-gay-culture-2016

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