Warning: Undefined variable $forJSON in /home/kunstha3/www/web2021/controllers/element_main.inc.php on line 232
Reading Rämistrasse #85: Hamish Lonergan on Cabin Crew at gta Exhibitions - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #85: Hamish Lonergan on Cabin Crew at gta Exhibitions

There is currently a glory hole in the HIL building foyer.

From far enough away, you might mistake the toilet partition in which it’s installed – pristine and pearlescent under exhibition lighting in a way you never see in a bathroom, no matter how clean – for part of a commercial display of sanitary wares. Or maybe the cubicles, doors, walls and mirrors scattered across the space are an arrangement of 1:1 building fragments. Forming something like those period rooms from demolished buildings you see pickled in museums.

The hundreds of students and academics who cross the foyer every day might not notice anything amiss, except that, this time, there seems little order to the installation’s arrangement. The partitions are scattered across the foyer, imposing minor deviations from the most direct route from one side to the other. The more observant might spot a pair of speedos flopping from a changeroom hook, or branches heaped to one side. A urinal divider has been unbolted from a wall somewhere else and tossed on the floor like a used condom. At first there was very little graffiti but, day by day, some quite explicit things have appeared on the cubicle doors. And there is that glory hole which, if you didn’t recognise it already, has been helpfully labelled. Someone has rimmed the hole with duct tape – cut and stuck, cog-like, to follow the curve of the opening – so that if anyone were to really use it, they wouldn’t slice their dick on exposed particleboard.

Cabin Crew, gta Exhibitions, 2022

Image: Shen He, courtesy Querformat and gta Exhibitions.

The scene is Cabin Crew: an exhibition curated in collaboration between the ETH student collective Querformat and gta Exhibitions. The items they have assembled – and the graffiti solicited from visitors – constitute what the exhibition essay describes as a ‘material archive’ of the queer spaces of Zurich. Some salvaged from condemned buildings, some borrowed with their owner’s permission, and some taken without asking at all; the branches are from the nudist beach at Werdinsel, a towel from Renos Relax sauna, a mirror from Umbo. Many of these places, of course, are notorious cruising grounds. And like ‘tearooms,’ ‘cottages’ and ‘beats’ everywhere – the fey euphemisms given to these places of often-brutal sex – in this exhibition, many of the signs that mark them remain innocuous for passers-by who don’t know what to look for.

These mass-produced, standardised stalls echo something of the HIL itself. Completed in 1976, the architects Max Ziegler, Erik Lanter and their collaborators were chiefly concerned with the building’s function. A regular column grid with integrated stairwells effectively distributes students between classes, while the modular studio and office walls can be rearranged according to the faculty’s needs.[1] It’s this same efficiency that makes it a bad building for cruising. The best cruising spots are out of the way, down crooked corridors. The sort of place only others like you seek out, giving you enough warning if anyone unexpected turns up. At HIL, instead, most of the bathrooms are installed in wide stairwells, or next to entrances.

The uncanniest quality of Cabin Crew might be that most of the memories it triggers aren’t mine. The exhibition documents an experience that has become increasingly rare in the wake of AIDs and successive waves of chatlines, websites and apps. I’ve spoken to guys on grindr and met them in a bathroom nearby: partly for the thrill, partly for convenience, but never because it was the only way. I’ve never felt the fear of police raids. In most of Western Europe, cruising is now only as illegal as any other public sex. I might have some inkling of what makes a good cruising spot – the cornucopia of sexual practices that went on there, the intense desire and intenser self-loathing, and the way some found friendship and community, if only for lack of other gay spaces – but only because I’ve read and seen them, second-hand, in books and movies. There might even be loads of cruising happening at HIL that I haven’t noticed: maybe the signs have changed.

Cabin Crew, gta Exhibitions, 2022

Image: Shen He, courtesy Querformat and gta Exhibitions. 

Walking through these cabins in the foyer is a different experience. Shown with the same care as the more august architectural fragments normally displayed by gta exhibitions, Cabin Crew leverages its place within an established gallery to lend respectability to these anonymous building elements and the queer-coded spaces they create. Excised from their banal reality, we are forced to contemplate them as complex material and archaeological objects in their own right. They hint at the unmediated experience of cruising, not just its literary or photographic representation. Isolated like art objects, a rusty chain (from Männerzone bar, of course) might appear as worthy of our sustained attention as bits of authored architecture conserved elsewhere. I know a glory hole when I see one, but I never noticed their edges prepared so delicately.

In normal practice, toilet partitions are framed in such a way that we hardly notice their disarming fragility. We see their surfaces, not the edges where particleboard bonds to laminate. Here though, out of the damp and gloom, not just one in a row of identical cubicles, I notice their flimsy angle brackets, which are all that’s fastening one wall to another. Elevated off the ground and barely tall enough to conceal the top of your head, they underscore the artificial rituals and etiquettes that were always part of cruising. The code stopping anyone just looking over the top or peering through the gap of a chunky hinge after a glory hole encounter. As thin as a mask, they seem barely enough to muffle a heartbeat.

There is ultimately nothing particular about the objects collected in Cabin Crew that made them suitable sites for queer experience, except perhaps where they were – out of the way or in a club – and their theatrical thinness: easier to bore a gloryhole. Afterall, there isn’t much distinguishing these mass-produced partitions from the lightweight foyer walls and industrialised doors: all shiny surface. It’s only in their scale and arrangement in a distant bathroom or this exhibition – introducing the sort of labyrinths conducive to cruising, doors opening and closing to reveal and conceal gazes – that the stalls seem poised to support queer acts.

Although I have been using queer and gay interchangeably, the spaces in this exhibition are primarily the site of gay male liberation, or deviance. From one angle, an exhibition like this risks excluding other ways of being queer in other bodies, especially for women and trans people. Yet Sara Ahmed has argued that there is no such thing as a queer object, rather objects are queered when they disorientate what seems familiar, and when they bring together bodies and practices that ‘are supposed to live on parallel lines, as points that should not meet…a queer object would have a surface that supports such contact.’[2]

This might be a dumb reading, but the partition surfaces and the glory hole through them – with its carefully protected edges ­– have the potential to forge queer connection. Their perfomative anonymity brought together bodies that might not have touched anywhere else: most of them cis but some of them trans; closeted and straight men shielding heteronormative lives; and gays just into the thrill of cruising.[3] It makes me imagine other queer acts that architects might perform, as small as this one. More fundamentally, in disrupting the functionalist foyer, the exhibition disorientates normal routines. Seeing a glory hole here confronts passers-by with an alternative experience of rooms as seemingly innocuous as a foyer or a bathroom. One that blurs and mingles subjectivities, making us realise that what seems familiar is hardly universal or particularly natural. It might not matter, then, if you recognise this as a queer space at first, or not.

[1] Max Ziegler, “Bericht des Architekten: Die Neubauten für Bauwissenschaften und Architektur der ETH auf dem Hönggerberg,” Schweizerische Bauzeitung 94, no. 42 (1976), 628-631.
[2] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology : Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 169.
[3] Don Bapst, “Glory Holes and the Men who use Them,” Journal of Homosexuality 41, no. 1 (2001), 89-102.

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

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions in Zürich. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

Feedback or questions? Do you want to participate? Email us