Making Art from Evidence: Secret Sex and Police Surveillance in the Tearoom
Crime Media Culture, Vol. 5, No. 3, December 2009
26 Pages Posted: 22 Jan 2010 Last revised: 3 Oct 2013
Date Written: December 1, 2009
In 1962, police officers concealed themselves for two weeks in a men’s public toilet in Mansfield, Ohio, and filmed men performing illicit homosexual sex acts. The film footage was used to secure convictions for sodomy, and inaugurated a new form of police surveillance of homosexual public sex. In 2008, the visual artist William E. Jones screened the police footage in art galleries around the world, to both critical acclaim and public objection. This article examines the film, both as a prosecutorial artifact and an artwork, to explore what it says about public sex, police surveillance, the criminalization of homosexual practices, visual evidence, and contemporary art. It considers the validity of the public/private distinction as it applies to anonymous sex, it evaluates the probative value of images, the changing nature of surveillance, and the meanings of silence in both criminal procedure and artistic practice. This article argues that the act of transforming traumatic evidence into visual art requires deep ethical examination. Whatever artistic, political or historical contribution may be claimed for this work must be measured against the harm that it does to the film’s silent subjects.
Keywords: art, evidence, homosexuality, public sex, surveillance
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