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Reading Rämistrasse #89: AJ on Cabin Crew at gta Exhibitions - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #89: AJ on Cabin Crew at gta Exhibitions

Disclaimer: Kunsthalle Zürich does not condone the graffiti proposed in this text.

During the Oz obscenity trials, in the 1960s, the defendants were asked why it was necessary, in their magazine, to print images of the beloved childhood character, Rupert Bear, with a large erection. The editors answered that the images in the magazine were no more or less obscene than anything that could be seen on a toilet door in a public library, and therefore there was no sense or benefit to censoring them. The judge, quite reasonably, objected that a single toilet door is not a publication, and that it is not distributed to a broad audience. The editors even more reasonably countered that a toilet door is, indeed, an object of contemplation for the general public, and furthermore, that a typical toilet door has a far higher circulation than a successful subcultural magazine. This is doubtless true. Niche magazines can have a print run of 500 or so copies. A popular cubicle probably sees ten visitors an hour, in the order of 3,000 people a month. In the 1960s, that was definitely more than the audited circulation of Oz (had it been audited, which it wasn’t), and it’s probably more views than your ex gets on Instagram.

I can’t remember if the Oz editors won their case or not. It doesn’t really matter. But the argument stands that a toilet door should be seen as a reasonably popular publishing platform. And furthermore, it is a publishing platform that has a couple of unique qualities. Not the thickness of the leaf or whatever. Rather, a toilet door from a men’s toilet is an exclusively male publishing platform. Unlike putatively masculine magazines, even if wrapped in plastic at the newsstand, texts and illustrations on toilet doors in a male toilet are (with rare exceptions) composed only by men, and read only by men. Correspondingly, in women’s toilets, the graffiti is exclusively by women and for women. In unisex (i.e. nonbinary) toilets, this divide is opened up to create a much more varied publishing platform, but this variety has a chilling effect, and such ecumenical toilet doors are rarely as interesting as the homosocial kind. How interesting it would be, then, to bring together such doors into an exhibition space, to drag into the light these unholy tablets with their secret, intimate, scatalogical messages.

Cabin Crew, gta Exhibitions, 2022

Foto: Shen He, courtesy Querformat und gta Exhibitions.

Luckily for you, this has now been done. In Cabin Crew in the gta foyer, a series of toilet cubicles has been installed. The ambition was to bring into visibility the spaces of LGBT+ sociality—the beats, the glory holes, the sites of secret assignation. The exhibition seeks to detaboo (terrible word) the spaces of the gay/trans body (this was a popular topic in gay urban geography in the 1980s. (1) Does it work? I can report two pieces of evidence, one perhaps ambiguously against, one perhaps for, the view that the exhibition has successfully moved the conversation forward (see, for instance, Hamish Lonergan’s sensitive and nuanced reading at Reading Rämistrasse #85, to which this review functions more as an appendix than a reply).

Exhibit #A: A huge penis (by what scale huge? It’s about three feet across) has appeared on the whitewashed wall of the corridor. Bright green, schematic, but with the vitality of an auroch bounding along the walls of the Lascaux caves. The presence of this dick seems at first affirming, but what is it affirming? Queerness? As graffiti has been added to the doors and walls in layers, the original, pristine obscenity of it all is being replaced by a general free-for-all. A survey has appeared on one of the doors, for or against anal sex. The question is directed at both genders, and I’ve overheard at least one conversation about whether or not it’s OK to tick ‘yes’. Now, I’m no sociologist, but this conversation seems no longer to be a privilege of the queer community: what we are seeing is a general desublimation amongst the heterosexual enthusiasts of the student body. I can shrug at this, but it might not be what the curators intended. It certainly irritates facilities management.

Exhibit #B: At the urinals of the actual toilets in the HIL building, it has become more customary for students and teachers to greet each other, even whilst micturating. This is a small revolution. Until recently, I had never had a colleague even acknowledge my presence in the toilet: somehow, it was all too confronting. Now, one can have a cheery conversation at the stall. On balance, this is a socially beneficial effect of the exhibition, and hope it continues. Luckily, since Corona, we are no longer habituated to shaking hands with every greeting.

Cabin Crew, gta Exhibitions, 2022

Foto: Shen He, courtesy Querformat und gta Exhibitions. 


If you wanted a teaching example, to explain the difference between an ‘evocative’ exhibition, and a ‘provocative’ exhibition, this installation would be a pretty good example to use. I’m glad that all these people are not down on sex, or prudishly hiding their lights under their respective bushels. There’s been a lot of boring earnest talk about sex around the university recently, a lot of discussion about prohibitions and rules, but the thing about a rule is that it immediately eroticises whatever is on the other side of it. Is there more to be said here? I don’t know, but if you want to write in to reply, please do so with a permanent marker on the toilets in the basement of the Kunsthalle.

(1) See, for example, the classic essay by Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 138–70).

Cabin Crew, Querformat & gta Exhibitions, HIL Foyer, ETH Hönggerberg, 31 March–20 May 2022

Reading Rämistrasse

Geht der Raum für Kunstkritik verloren, müssen wir handeln. Deswegen schaffen wir diesen Ort für Kritik – Reading Rämistrasse – auf der Webseite der Kunsthalle Zürich und veröffentlichen Rezensionen zu aktuellen Ausstellungen in Zürich. Diese geben nicht die Meinung der Kunsthalle Zürich wieder, denn Kritik muss unabhängig sein.

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