On the entrance to the viewing gallery for William E. Jones’s fi lm Tearoom (2007) at the Whitney Museum Biennale in 2008, patrons confronted a disclaimer: “Contains sexually explicit material and may not be suitable for all audiences.” This was the fi rst time the Whitney had to tag a work of art with such a cautionary directive. The grainy, 16-mm color surveillance fi lm of a men’s public toilet was made by the Mansfi eld, Ohio, police department during three weeks in the summer of 1962. Jones’s use of this fi lm footage in video format, only slightly edited from the original, raises questions about the visual experience and ethical context of the fi lm’s meaning as a museum object. The square viewing gallery had black walls and hard plastic chairs aligned in rows to give the look of a theatre. Sitting with about fi ve other patrons all dispersed in the room, I watched in silence as the video reproduction of degraded color fi lm projected upon the white screen. The 16-mm fi lm presents images of men’s bodies moving through the narrow spaces and dimly lit room of a public restroom. There is no voice over. No music. The viewer sits in relative silence through the whole fi lm, only the noises of the other patrons shifting or stirring, entering and exiting the gallery accompany the viewing experience. All attention is focused on the mystery of this silent fi lm, as the viewer contemplates men cruising other men in their awkward and shy ways, and later in the fi lm, men having sex half hidden behind stall walls or the shadows of the bathroom corners. The camera rarely moves. Instead, it sits like a surveying eye, or like those early silent fi lms where the camera was stationed in front of a theatre stage and dancers or actors would perform. The bodies moved rather than the camera. These moving bodies in the men’s bathroom transfi xed me, but not so much for what they were doing. Rather, in the silence of the fi lm, I was made
acutely aware of myself watching. The silence, like the static camera, evokes a certain distance between viewer and subject that provokes a number of questions and mysteries.