Installation Shot of Numbers II at Peres Projects
We live in a world where those conducting research using human subjects first must submit their plans to a university internal review board, partly to avoid gross breaches of ethics, and mostly to avoid litigation. With the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the American government allowed mostly African Americans in the rural south to progress to advanced syphilis so they could study the pathogenesis and progression in patients left untreated. Today’s standards require researchers to provide informed consent, essentially a piece of paper that lets subjects know all the possible ramifications of participation. While this is designed to protect the subject (and the institution conducting the research) it has created a quandary that has stifled some potentially important discoveries. In one case, a study of emergency room patients with head injuries was halted because the comatose victims could not verbally consent to a potentially life-saving procedure.
Dean Sameshima's Numbers II (Ode to Johnny Rio)
Years ago Laud Humphries was engaged in the study that could not be replicated today because it would similarly “study” people without their consent. His Ph.D. dissertation, Tearoom Trade, was the first to point out the double lives led by many men who engaged in sex in public restrooms. By acting like a ‘player’ or ‘lookout queen’ in these environments, he was able to witness the sex and take note the license plates of the cars these men arrived in. Much later he would contact the same men, saying he was conducting a health-related study for Washington University (where he studied). After answering general questions he would move onto questions about their sex lives. More than half of these men denied ever engaging in homosexual activity and a larger majority identified as being exclusively heterosexual—even after being told their answers would remain confidential (and being asked in private). Because these men never consented to be studied, Laud never received his degree.
Untitled, Numbers, Ode to Johnnie Rio (2008)
Rather than paint a picture of uptight men in denial, the folks he interviewed ran the gamut from closet cases to ‘out’ homosexuals. Here in Los Angels, the gay community was in the process of inventing itself, establishing a toehold in an unincorporated part of LA County (which later became the City of West Hollywood)--out of reach of the homophobic LAPD. About the time Laud was conducting his research, John Rechy was publishing his roman à clef, Numbers. The book describes Johnny Rio, a former hustler who has returned to Los Angeles and attempts to trick with thirty men in ten days.
Dean Sameshima's In Between Days (Without You) 1998
In Laud’s research and Rechy’s fiction, the men participate in anonymous sex for a variety of complicated reasons. Like today, different sex acts imply different meanings, and they can be initiated for reasons ranging from validation to penance; for the joy of play to plain old horniness; to display domination and control or vulnerability and passiveness; and to give or receive pleasure or pain—or something else altogether. At it’s best it can be a celebration of the intimacy of our tribe and an unapologetic celebration of masculinity, undiluted by feminine conceits and unfettered by social norms.
I had met Dont Rhine while he was a student of Mary Kelley and a member of Ultra-red. At the time he produced an Ode to Johnny Rio, a mix of ambient recordings made at Griffith Park, the location of Numbers’ final encounters. It is also the place where I first met Dean Sameshima, whose Numbers II (Ode to Johnny Rio) was on display at Peres Projects in Chinatown. It is impossible not to make comparisons between the Johnnie Rio character and Dean, and see the silkscreened images of John Rechy functioning as art à clef to the thirty-six year-old artist. At the same time Dean’s work—from his early photographs of disheveled beds at Midtowne Spa and other bath houses (1998), to his Figures of Lust Furtively Encountered in the Nights (2004)—can be seen as a bit of participant-observation, à la Humphries.
Having spent the better part of a year living in Europe (in my youth), I can remember how easy it was to “live inside one’s self,” due to the language and cultural differences. This is similar to Rechy’s character, where much of the narrative takes place inside the protagonist’s head. I expect there were similar moments for Dean and his time spent living in Berlin while making this work.
There is an incredible amount of non-verbal language in the act of cruising, exhibiting interest (or not), and progressing from loitering in a public place to enticing someone to move to a more private location where positions and preferences can be non-verbally negotiated. Bits of these postures are replicated in some of Rechy’s poses, like when a thumb is tucked in to a belt loop and his fingers casually drape across his crotch. This cacophony of the non-verbal can be seen in Dean’s earlier work: the hanky-code colors of Numbers I and in Outlaw’s (2004) images of the gay vernacular rendered in ASL.
Tomorrow's Post: Wandering up the hill from Chinatown