Text by Michael Bullock
Commisioned by Joáo Pedro Vale, 2018
Images courtesy of Cristina Guerra
Midnight. New York City; sometime in the early 1970’s; the weather is perfect. A young man is making his virgin pilgrimage to Central Park’s illicit all-male adult playground: The Rambles. A section of the park where men gather for no strings attached sex. He’s excited and scared but his profound sexual hunger keeps him focused on finding the destination. Only weeks earlier he had left his hometown to restart his life on his own terms. Tonight’s visit is an important rite of passage for his homosexual identity. Approaching the forest he finds a maze of paths created by his brethren who had made the same walk, for the same reasons since the 1920’s. He takes a deep breath, preparing himself to participate in the storied communal sexual utopia that awaits him. Through the darkness he can make out the silhouettes of men paired off and in groups, enjoying each other’s bodies anonymously, in public space, in nature. Through the foliage he hears the grunts and groans of satisfaction. A stranger’s welcomed hand brushes between his legs and the electrifying sensation is life affirming, it opens the floodgates to a new experience of freedom. The power of this taboo breaking moment overrules all former criticism from anyone who ever told him he was a worthless sinner. More than just simply needing to get off, for this man, on this night, a psychological line is crossed. Where he had grown up his sexuality was considered immoral, dangerous and deviant; an act against god, family and nature but here in the act of cruising this critic is flipped, his body is no longer judged with contempt, in these dark woods his body has become the focus of adoration and desire. Sexual release and the release of shame unite. A sense of belonging emerges and his formerly suppressed identity is empowered.
Although public sex has always been an illegal act, in the 1970’s (post-Stonewall Riots 1969 and pre-AIDS 1981) American cities were experiencing a bold golden age of cruising as marked by a celebration of the act in the work of leading artists. In New York: John Rechy kicked it off early with his influential novel City of Night (1963) which presents cruising on both coasts, including a scenes that takes place in the Rambles. Alvin Balthrop’s photography obsessively documented the notorious Chelsea Piers. John Giorno’s text, You Got to Burn to Shine (1993), describes anonymous sex he had during this period, with a young man at the Prince St, subway station toilets (the young man turned out to be artist Keith Haring and this text inspired a work in this show titled Great Anonymous Sex). Haring’s own work from that period includes many drawings of group sex, one piece in particular titled Glory Hole (1980), characterizes cruising as transcendent.
On the West Coast: the Finish born artist Tom of Finland (who split his time between his home country and Los Angeles) drawings often focused on cruising. Tom favored depicting outdoor cruising because he felt that displaying homosexual sex acts in nature allowed gay men to think of themselves as natural when straight society backed by religion took every opportunity to tell them that they weren’t. Also in this period, America produced a cruising icon in the fabulous German born self-portrait artist Armin Hagen Freiherr von Hoyningen-Huene who had to move to the free-wheeling queer mecca of 1970’s San Francisco in order to transform into his alter-ego: Peter Berlin. The energy and artistic production around cruising, an act that two decades earlier was considered too uncivilized to even be acknowledged, was building such great momentum that in 1980 the celebrated director William Friedkin, (The French Connection, The Exorcist) adopted Gerald Walker’s novel Cruising (1970) into a mainstream movie by the same name. The film stars Al Pacino, who plays a young detective assigned to go undercover in New York City’s hardcore gay leather scene. The movie shocks America exposing the country to many parts of gay life that they never even imagined existed (including cruising the Rambles).
Meanwhile in Portugal gay men heard about America’s gay liberation movement while suffering in silent isolation under a harsh dictatorship that denied that gay men and women even existed; not even allowing for the word homosexual to be used in public documents. In the Salazar-Caetano era (1932-1974) all threads of homosexuality were erased which stopped gay history from being recorded and gay identity from forming, which effectively eliminated the development of any gay culture. It would be logical to conclude that cruising in this period was impossible as the punishments were too severe. This is what artist João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Ferreira assumed until they discovered a public notice from the 1950’s. They selected key language from this document as the title of their exhibition (as well as a key piece in the show) it reads: The Hand In The Thing, The Thing In The Mouth, The Mouth In The Thing, The Thing in The Hand. This warning criminalizes public sex using the most circuitous language, without naming any sexual anatomy, acts or orientations. The document suggests that not even the most organized fascist regime could completely control its people’s sexual conduct. The insightful historical artifact started the artist on a mission to make work that imagines, reclaims and reconstructs this unrecorded period of gay life and invites reflection on the dictatorships impact on queer life in Portugal today.
Their sculpture The Hand In The Thing, The Thing in The Mouth, The Mouth In The Thing, The Thing in The Hand is an irregular navy blue floor to ceiling column created by the layering of the jeans of hundreds of men. The artists describe each pair of individual jeans as a trophy; not in the traditional sense but in the way one might save an artifact from a lover to remember them. Each pair honors a man that lived through the dictatorship and disregarded the laws. These men risked, their jobs, family and freedom to fulfill their same-sex desires. On each jean, the public notice is silk screened, inverting the warning, transforming it into a badge of rebellion. Through these collective acts of resistance, life began to grow, the image of a tree trunk emerges but at the same time the punishment these acts is omnipresent. On the tree trunk the public notice is posted as reminder that if caught this life affirming sexual activity would be brutally turned against them and so the tree trunk form could paradoxically be understood as a pillory.
The sculptures Vadios and Take Ecstasy With Me both present human scale architectural form’s that force a relationship between the viewer and the act of cruising. In Vadios a circular eight-unit structure is semi-shielded by a circular half wall, viewer participation completes the work by inviting them to use the space of the Vadios; a term which means vagabond or hoodlum and was used instead of the word homosexual in all legal documents in the period in which same-sex sexual activity was outlawed (1912-1982). The form of this sculpture encourages participants to walk into the center and choose a private cabin. These small spaces are scented with the fumes of alkyl nitrites, an inhalant, referred to in the gay community as Poppers, which are used to heighten euphoria during sexual contact. Small circular holes are cut into the walls at the approximate average height of a crotch allowing for access to rooms on either side. These “Glory Holes” invite you to engage in public acts of sexual freedom. The design of this piece pays homage to Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon a concept that’s summed up simply means: we are given the freedom to act but self-regulate because we are not sure who is watching. When this process is endured over time we eventually internalize the prison becoming our own guards. This structure delivers a symbolic simulation of the experience of cruising during the dictatorship, offering a real opportunity to overcome self-censorship in return for sexual gratification. The walls of this sculpture are covered in queer graffiti as well as selection of texts from the Portuguese poets Judith Teixeira, António having their books banned in the 1923 incident known as “Poets of Sodoma”.
Take Ecstasy With Me speaks to a totally different aspect of cruising in contemporary Portuguese life. It literally flips the multi-use public music festival urinal on its head, attaching it to the ceiling. In real life these already sculptural shapes allow an unintended opportunity for cruising. In this incarnation the form has been coated in a compound named Colbat II Cloride, a material associated with the weather rooster or Cock (a subliminal nod to New York City’s notorious cruising bar) that turns blue or pink due to the level of humidity. The typically masculine blue object now moves fluidly between the colors that represent the masculine and feminine gender binaries. This fluidity represents a homosexual’s option to move between what is commonly thought of as dominate (masculine) and submissive (feminine) sex roles. Further queering the macho adolescent space of the music festival, the inversion of this object, drain’s it’s urine tanks, which if they were filled would literally create a “ Golden Shower” a term from fetish sub-culture which describes the act of urinating on others or having others urinate on you in order to fulfill sexual pleasure.
The collection of new work in The Hand in The Thing, The Thing in The Mouth, The Mouth in The Thing, The Thing in The Hand examines the relationship and impact on identity America’s gay liberation movement had on shaping Portugal’s formerly suppressed but currently thriving queer population. It dreams about cruising’s undocumented past, examines it’s present and explores its benefits to queer culture and queer history. But what is cruising’s relevance today in an age where the new generation of young Portuguese men have grown up in a culture where they could literally find gay sex at their fingertips on their phone through hook-up applications such as Grindr and Scruff. When João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Ferreira are asked if they still feel cruising is an important queer act João responds “Definitely, cruising, because it is public is an important weapon against a system that’s working hard to homogenize queer people by making them conform to heterosexual standard’s for sexual conduct and partnership. In cruising, there’s a letting go because in the moment you decide to partake in the activity your forced to leave some decisions up to chance; there’s the architecture, the timing, and the potential to surprise yourself by sharing a fulfilling encounter with a man who may not be “your type”. Online is private, cruising is communal”. Nuno adds “Cruising is still a political statement, it breaks barriers of race and class, and put’s a stop to the capitalist ego centric emphasis that sex apps can put on perfection. It disrupts what can sometimes become the tyranny of self-selection. Even when I’m not personally participating in the cruising area at Costa da Caparica, I feel freer knowing a space exists for this. It keeps the boundaries of my sexual identity and my sexual freedom open.”