Seeing and Being Seen on St. Mark’s Place
On the visibility of desire during lockdown
On the visibility of desire during lockdown
This essay is the fifth in a series of memos by artists, writers, curators and scientists written to the world after the COVID-19 crisis. In homage to Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), they are divided into six categories: 'lightness', 'quickness', 'exactitude', 'visibility', 'multiplicity' and 'consistency'. ‘Seeing and Being Seen on St. Mark’s Place’ was written in response to ‘visibility’.
Between 1982 and 1984, I would often sit on the steps across from the New St Mark’s Baths in New York. From there, I could see men in Levi’s, coloured T-shirts, leather jackets and army jackets, occasionally tennis shorts, sometimes a rucksack and often a moustache. There were times when a skinhead came down the street, the scene blurred and I began guessing who was gay and who was a thug. I was simultaneously judgemental and jealous of the freedom behind the baths’ big doors. I didn’t visit the piers on the West Side, so it was mostly hearsay. I tried to hear it in their footsteps. Who had done what and to how many? My favourite teacher at the School of Visual Arts was Craig Owens, a pioneer for being a gay man interested in women. I took one of his semiotics classes, which aligned with the gay literature of colour-coded handkerchiefs. I liked skinhead girls and knew that having a shaved head did not mean I could hold their hands.
To my right was another space of anonymity: Alcoholics Anonymous. The block was teeming with sex, violence and drunken loitering. Cruising per se didn’t happen in the East Village. We had drag queens and performance artists. The clones migrated from the West Side to get fucked downtown. I was one year out from reading about the gentrification of the East Village in New York magazine, and I knew that I was a gentrifier, but also a joiner, a fan and an escapee. I was a writer before I was an artist, and I was afraid of the associations of the newly appropriated word ‘queer’. I didn’t use the term ‘lesbian’ and felt beholden somehow to the label ‘gay’.
I remember looking for shame and a mirror on St Mark’s Place. Other people’s shame, a sense of how not to hide, how to project a gay female identity that had so few earmarks or spokeswomen that spoke to me. I bought boots at Trash and Vaudeville next to the baths. I bought Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse (1977) at St Mark’s Bookshop, at its original location. In a few years, I would attend drug-addict lovers’ dances in the AA space. The bookstore would move across the street next to where the baths were. There was a cruelty to my curiosity. New St Mark’s Baths provided costumes, so one could be all one could be. Visibility seemed double-edged: I could never be as gay as the men going into the baths and I could never be as tough as the boots I bought or the girls with shorter hair than my own, who I longed for on Avenue A. I was afraid to look too queer, and I suffered for that. I wanted it more than both ways – I wanted it all ways. I only wanted a dick because boys looked at me more than girls did and it seemed a shame to go around empty-handed.
The baths closed around the same time the bookstore moved next door and OUT magazine (1992–ongoing) began the process of ‘outing’. There was less confusion on the street. Probably a little less violence, too. People were disappearing. I bought Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind when it came out in 2012 and read the harrowing stories of AIDS deaths, of the bed-ridden comrades I probably saw every day until I didn’t. A second wave of gentrification and loss of gay visibility accompanied the disease, as apartments that belonged to those who died were rented to yuppies. I was surrounded by the fear of HIV, but never felt at risk of contracting the virus myself, unless I developed an addiction to drugs. It’s remarkable to feel you’ve been given a second chance. To be given a choice to abstain.
I know what it’s like to take a risk now and what amounts to a chance, to continue sleeping with someone I just met, rather than entirely isolate myself. This is very instructive to me. It’s easy to think it’s easy to hold back when you’re not the one who has to. I wonder how many people in the 1980s, during the AIDS epidemic, were privately conflicted about their expectations that other people forgo a sexuality that was so hard won.
To be visible now is a conflict. To be seen out is problematic. To make work, as well. Should artists have a kind of special speech to describe an illness that targets not the so-called cultural cream of the crop, but people who live in communities with underfunded hospitals? I began shooting pictures via Skype a few years ago, because the subjects I wanted to work with were overseas. Now, most culture exists in a similar fashion. None of us are near any of us. Our visibility is the bastard child of Jean Baudrillard and J.G. Ballard.
I’ve been waiting for this since I was 20 years old, which is to say that I’ve been waiting for the essence of myself to travel through circuits not as a pastime but as a life. Up until last year, I was mainly a looker anyways. But last year, ironically, I began choreographing a ballet and dancing very close with a number of people. And this closeness also reminded me of the New St Mark’s Baths – a sweaty darkness of limbs and permission. A kind of proximity to promiscuity, which then led me to crave physicality in a new way and led me to take risks for it. My photography and the luxury of an audience means I can make all this visible. I can show myself and another body in correlation with mine. A proof of my desire as well as my desirability. An unfurling of ego to support another’s. This visibility prods representational issues, and representation – as I learned some 36 years ago – is a real problem. If you can’t beat the issue, why not join it? To show myself making visible an identity, and to enlist the body of another, is a risk. So, two thrills are at play: trusting someone not to infect me and showing the world who I am with. A declaration. An exploration, a description. Fun. Wild history, as Richard Prince would call it. I have that book, which I read when it came out in 1985, so often it eventually split in two. There is no great point here, except that a lot of time passes. Now slowly, in drips. A surreal waiting game because the streets have become the baths. We are all gays and junkies now. Our meetings are all online.