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sometimes I find myself wondering
if the castle is a castle at all
a place apart, or merely
the castle that every snail
must carry around till his death

Thom Gunn, ‘Jack Straw’s Castle’ (1975)

 

In Rosalind Nashashibi’s film Jack Straw’s Castle (2009), the performative staging crucial to the act of cruising in a public place is so central that it is the film’s primary subject. Indeed, there is little action beyond it. Bright daylight turns to dusk, birds sing, and leaves are rustled. People, mostly men, move in and out of the frame, some intentionally, others unwittingly. The film’s action moves from tracing the homoerotic labour of men looking for sex with other men in public to recording the manual labour required in the production of a film.

Men and women pass instructions between each other as they install a scaffold tower in the depths of the cruising ground of Hampstead Heath. There is a suggestive precarity to this work and to the scene that it sets up; as night falls, the crew replace the daylight with bright, yellow artificial lamps that face on to the scaffolding itself. They fake the glow that we, the viewers, know illuminated this wooded area at the beginning of the film and before the appearance of the crew. They resist the passage of time, from day to night, which seemed to be the film’s only obvious narrative action. We seem to be moving back in time as we move between staged fantasy and reality, looking for sex in this footage of a cruising site as much as we try and determine the narrative thrust of the film. We don’t find either.

Jack Straw's Castle, Rosalind Nashashibi, 2009

(Installation view at LUX, 2017)

As well as recording the life of this very real cruising space, where knowing performers and cruisers cross the frame, seeking the returned glance of a fellow cruiser rather than a filmmaker, Jack Straw’s Castle re-stages the optical and affective work of cruising and draws connections between the loaded looking practices of the cruiser and the artist. It is also about women looking at men looking for men. Nashashibi relates the charged and coded glances of the cruiser, visible to those in the know, and the experience of looking as a filmmaker who is not part of that action. Without obvious sex, it is a film about the continual motion of the cruising excursion and its open-endedness; the time and space between sexual encounters. Jack Straw’s Castle, although it is set in the renowned cruising ground of the Heath and captures some of those active in that scene, approaches cruising more as a methodology, a way of thinking about filmmaking and looking.

What does it mean to see the action of cruising as a method for something that is not sexual? Or to draw inspiration from the motion of cruising when making eroticised work? Thinking of cruising in this methodological way suggests a furtive mode of undertaking artistic research and practice, of looking eagerly through photographic documentation and archival ephemera, or looking closely for ideas or motivation in the words and images of others. In his book Backward Glances (2003), Mark Turner described cruising between men as “a practice that exploits the fluidity and multiplicity of the modern city to its advantage.”[1] It is, he argued, a “process of counter movement” that “necessarily resists totalizing ways” of narrating its temporal and spatial character.[2] To see cruising as a method for art making evokes a similar sense of resistance to the projection of a predetermined outcome or product for one’s work in advance, working in an open-ended or non-linear mode, without a delineated narrative.

In a similar way, Neil Bartlett compared the research process for his book Who Was That Man? A Present for Oscar Wilde (1988), to the action of cruising for sex. Indeed, it is a text that is partly about the experience of cruising and the strange things that cruising in public places does to one’s sense of time. He recalled reading “with the dogged energy that I usually reserve for cruising; I became excited by the smallest hints; I scrutinised every gesture for significance; sometimes I simply stood close and waited for a response”.[3] Rather than conveying a sense of detachment and staging, Bartlett’s notion of cruising as method is erotically charged, tactile, and eager. It describes the feeling of being turned on by your subject and deeply invested in it. Cruising as method, for Bartlett, is the antithesis of critical distance and scholarly objectivity.

In her book Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010), Elizabeth Freeman drew similar connections between cruising and the labour of historians, writers, and artists. She called this practice ‘erotohistoriography’. Queer historical work, she notes, often approaches “the body as a method, and historical consciousness as something intimately involved with corporeal sensations.”[4] To write queerly about the queer past, to make queer work that takes queer experience, including sex, as its subject necessitates thinking differently about the hegemonic practices of history making, writing, and art, that shape the environments in which we live and work. The value of cruising as method in this context is also that it directs us, both as producers and consumers of art and history, away from heteronormative narratives that have excluded queer lived experience and offers a way of dealing with exclusive, hegemonic accounts of the past. It accounts for the fragmentary documentation, the archival gaps and mainstream cultural omissions, the experience of trying to record and reclaim that which is difficult to see (or has been continually elided through cultural exclusion) and the discrediting of research that is not distant or objective, that is turned on. We often read between the lines because we have to. Cruising as method is a mode of being what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called “a perverse reader”, of reading (and looking) “against the grain” and developing a kind of “visceral near-identification” with words or images that could be consumed in this way.[5] Thinking of cruising as method reframes that sense of furtive exploration as a self-directed, open-ended and radical practice of looking that prioritises pleasure and connectedness.

Jack Straw's Castle, Rosalind Nashashibi, 2009

(Installation view at LUX, 2017)

The methods that Nashashibi uses to establish links between the staging and artifice of filmmaking and the coded practice of cruising relate to those deployed by William E. Jones in his 2006 film Tearoom. The film consists of police surveillance footage that Jones uncovered while researching cases brought by the police against men who cruised in public toilets (known as ‘tearooms’) in Mansfield, Ohio, in the early 1960s and what happened to them. Many of the men arrested and charged with sodomy after cruising there were imprisoned or sent to psychiatric institutions. Lasting almost an hour, Tearoom is made up entirely of footage of cruising and sex between men in a particular tearoom in Mansfield in 1962. These “unedited scenes of ordinary men of various races and classes meeting to have sex were so powerful”, according to Jones’ notes for the film, that he “decided to present the footage with a minimum of intervention”.[6] Although, unlike Nashashibi, Jones appropriated found footage of cruising, his presentation of it also places emphasis on its complicated artifice. The footage that Jones discovered included clear evidence of the clandestine circumstances of its production: as well as looking at men cruise in the space, we watch as two police officers set up recording equipment inside a storage closet and position themselves behind a two-way mirror, enabling them to record the action without being detected themselves, unlike officers who participated in sting operations. Here, the Ohio State Police also play with the powerful potential of cruising as method. Presenting this material as found and allowing the viewer to watch men cruise with the painful knowledge of their impending exposure and arrest, Jones draws parallels between the gaze of the police and the visual codes of cruising in order to demonstrate the ways in which the methods of cruising in public toilets were appropriated by the police to ensnare men who participated in it. Showing Tearoom in the present, Jones exposes and ensnares the men behind the false mirror, rather than those in front of it. In doing so, he reclaims cruising as a method from the disciplinary forces that have exploited it. Showing the footage as found and in full is crucial to this act of resistance, this erotic history. Tearoom suggests that engaging with cruising as a method is most effective when it is used to trace and share the history of cruising itself, when it is not a metaphor but a way of thinking queerly about the practice of looking for something that is not immediately visible.

 


 

Dr Fiona Anderson is Lecturer in Art History in the Fine Art department at Newcastle University. At the moment, she is completing a book on the art and gay cruising scenes on New York’s derelict waterfront in the years immediately preceding the HIV/AIDS epidemic, looking most closely at the work of David Wojnarowicz and Peter Hujar, and working on a new project on the culture and politics of the drug AZT. She’s the UK PI for CRUSEV Cruising the Seventies.

This essay has been commissioned in partnership with Cruising the Seventies: Unearthing Pre-HIV/AIDS Queer Sexual Cultures (CRUSEV), in the context of CRUISING GROUND.

 


 

Footnotes

[1] Mark Turner, Backward Glances: Cruising Queer Streets in London and New York (London: Reaktion Books, 2003), 9.

[2] Turner, Backward Glances, 9.

[3] Neil Bartlett, quoted in Ross Chambers, Loiterature (Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 78.

[4] Elizabeth Freeman, Times Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 95-96.

[5] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (London: Routledge, 1994), 3 – 4.

[6] William E. Jones, Tearoom, 2006. Accessed 18th August 2017. https://www.williamejones.com/portfolio/tearoom/