I'm in the process of adapting Burbank, an Allan Kaprow happening in four Los Angeles public parks. My work involves two significant changes: transferring the documentation from photographic paper to cyberspace, and moving the performance from an institutional space to a public one. Coincidentally, there's an article about Andreas Siekmann's Trickle Down: Public Space in the Era of Its Privatization in the current Artforum.
In Trickle Down, Siekmann's interest lays in the fake public space: places that were formerly public, like 3rd Street in Santa Monica, which are now privately controlled and regulated. My interest lies in places that are still labeled as public, but come increasingly under government control and commodification.
A hundred and fifty years ago, Vaux and Olmsted created the rolling hills, plantings, and natural-appearing rocky outcroppings that now comprise Central Park in New York. A significant visual component of their work was the creation of large verdant masses that carry the eye across the landscape. This was accomplished by planting stands of tall trees surrounded by dense bushes that are bordered by groundcover. The eye moves from the lower plantings, up across the mounds of green to the open sky, creating an illusion of the natural and a vast, open space in the middle of a dense urban setting.
In cross section, the tall trees create a canopy screened from view at ground level. At the turn of the century, when working-class New Yorkers lived in cramped tenement housing, the park provided a free and inviting place for courting and other social interactions that now take place in private and commercial spaces like apartment living rooms and clubs.
In later years these visually obscured arboreal rooms provided resting areas for the homeless, a discrete space for injection drug users to shoot up, and cruising and sexual encounter zones for homosexuals. The criminalization and regulation of these types of behaviors created a financial windfall for both the prison and legal systems, and Manhattan land owners. In more modern cities (like Los Angeles), nefarious activities are easily controlled by cutting off the lower branches of trees and the elimination of shrubbery that would provide cover. As far back as 1905, New Yorkers complained of this type of activity, which pointedly was done to placate the wealthy:
A few years ago we had a tree-cutting Commissioner. ...He thinned out the rows of trees along the roadsides, the groves and woods, cut down hedges, trimmed up the lower branches of trees, and cut out the undergrowth until the park looked like a picnic grove.Interestingly, one of the first acts by organized homosexuals (pre-Stonewall and pre-Gay) was to confront police patrols and arrests of men cruising and having public sex on Fire Island, one of the few times that public support of locally normative behavior trumped bullying by the police.
...Under the present Commissioner a trotting track is being built on the parade ground near Baychester Station. This track will twice cross the direct road to the station, and I am told that the road is to be discontinued and the trees on both sides cut down. The building of this race track has already spoiled the parade ground, a big open space, good for many other purposes, will close the direct and long-used road to the station, will destroy many fine old and young trees, and will cost a great deal of money.
For whose benefit?
For that very small class of citizens able to keep trotting horses and fond of track speeding.
Public behaviors that are suppressed and controlled by the criminal justice system, especially sex and drug use, have found ways to express themselves and at the same time avoid detection by legal authorities. For example, sexual activity in public spaces is self regulated, with individuals looking to have sex, engaging in an escalating exchange of non-verbal cues:
- Approaching the area and looking for activity without implicating oneself
- Hanging out in a visible area near to a secluded area to signal availability
- Making eye contact and holding it to signal interest
- Moving into a secluded area while making eye contact
- Waiting for the other person to enter the secluded area
- Waiting to make sure a non-participant doesn't follow into the secluded area
- Hooking a thumb into one's pocket with one's hand casually over the crotch
- Waiting for the other player to do the same
- Moving deeper into the bushes, into an area littered with condom wrappers and other debris
- Moving closer to each other
The touching the buttocks, the genitals, or a woman's breast, with the intent of provoking sexual arousal, in public and in the presence of a third party who may be offended would have to take place.To make an arrest, a police officer would have to be engaged in similar behaviors as the cruising men. Police procedure encourages the plain-clothes officer to "mirror" the behaviors of those being entrapped: a raised eyebrow, gets a raised eyebrow in return, a squeeze of the crotch is copied. When it becomes evident that the individual is cruising, a police badge and handcuffs come out and the man is taken to jail.
For the police officer, time spent on the vice squad is a great route to advancement, and unlike other vice duties, there is little risk posed to the officer's safety by these nonviolent gay and bisexual men. The district attorney also likes lewd conduct cases because he can offer the entrapped individual a reduced charge of disorderly conduct, which does not require him to register as a sex offender under Megan's Law. For the most part, these men will readily accept the deal, plead guilty to the lesser offense, and the D.A. can report a phenomenally high conviction rate when he runs for reelection.
In the early seventies, Laud Humphreys studied men who engage in public sex. In the anthropological tradition of the participant-observer, he would play the part of a cruiser, observe the encounters and also copy the license plate numbers of these men. Many months later he would contact these men under the auspices of the university, as a public health researcher. He would then set up a time to privately interview these men. After establishing rapport by asking some basic health and demographic questions and stressing the confidentiality of the interview, he would eventually ask about their sexual orientation. More than half of these men would claim to be heterosexual. For some folks there would appear to be a contradiction between their expressed orientation and behavior.
The liminal public/private space of the encounter (definition 3 : of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition) is mirrored by the liminal act of cruising (definition 2 : barely perceptible) by men who's sexuality exists in a liminal psychic space, perceptible only to Laud or other cruising men (definition 1 : of or relating to a sensory threshold).
My sense is that in Burbank, Kaprow was pushing at notions of the natural, grafting (in a sense) images and representations of leaves onto trees. In my work--Four Park Sites--I would like to push back (a bit poetically) at the encroaching suppression on locally normative behaviors, as well as graft some non-verbal signs from one park to another.