Artists of the Year

William E. Jones

William E. Jones

By Dean Otto

News of Sen. Larry Craig's arrest by an undercover police officer in a public-toilet sex sting at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport exploded in the press in late August. Newscasters were befuddled as they reported the details. Later, Craig's explanation that his "wide stance" in the stall was misunderstood by the officer became a pop euphemism for gay. Public-bathroom sex became fodder for late-night monologues, and the site of Craig's bust turned into a tourist attraction.

All of that gives remarkable weight and context to the work of Los Angeles filmmaker William E. Jones, who exhibited at Walker Art Center last summer, just before the scandal broke. Jones's films often rework footage from the nonsexual moments in gay porn, and addresses the lines between fandom and obsession. In the process of mining images of gay sexuality in film, he uncovered an instructional film called Camera Surveillance, produced by the Highway Safety Foundation, that taught officers techniques to covertly film illegal sexual activity in public toilets. In this case, the footage shot in 1962 in the small town of Mansfield, Ohio, led to charges and convictions of more than 30 men. Jones's reworking of the footage, Mansfield 1962, which showed at the Walker, contains many levels of irony. The surveillance tapes were shot by police hiding in a closet—natch—and the explicit footage shows the sexual abandon and joy, but not the horror and humiliation that soon followed. The restroom in the film is a cultural and social equalizer, ensnaring men of various classes. In this case, most served several years in jail and had their lives ruined.

We will be hearing more from Jones soon. Next up is a spot in the coveted Whitney Biennial—the holy grail of emerging artists—where he will be presenting Tearoom, another found film on gay sex in bathrooms.

Dean Otto is assistant curator of Film/Video at Walker Art Center. He was co-curator of the "Modes of Disclosure" exhibition at the Form + Content Gallery where Mansfield 1962 was exhibited.

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