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William E. Jones: The secret history 

Artist talks about his 2008 Whitney Biennial Film, Tearoom

Los Angeles artist William E. Jones will debut his 56-minute film, Tearoom, at Eyedrum Friday, Feb. 22, at 8 p.m. The film, which will appear at the March 2008 Whitney Biennial, is a found document of a 1962 Mansfield, Ohio, police bust. Ohio police set up hidden cameras in a Mansfield public restroom hoping to catch sexual activity. What they found was men from all walks of life engaged in what in the early '60s constituted a furtive homosexual subculture. I had a chance recently to speak to Jones about the film he has made based on that police footage.

How do you think Tearoom's acceptance into the 2008 Whitney Biennial will change its reception?

I think it's great that the Biennial curators have chosen to include a found object in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum. Something comparable happened when the Rodney King beating video shot by George Holliday, who was not a professional artist, appeared in the 1993 Biennial. I was also in that Biennial, and my entry in the catalog comes right after George Holliday's. Fifteen years later, I am back at the Whitney Museum presenting a document of another of law enforcement's excesses, though not one that caused an uprising. I can't predict how Tearoom will change in this context, though it may make an interesting addition to an art-world institution often criticized for eschewing politics and ratifying decisions already made by the market.

Where and when did you first see the film on which Tearoom is based? How did you get a copy? There is an Atlanta connection?

I originally found some of the footage on the Internet. On the Planet Out website, in alphabetical order immediately before my own film Massillon, was an entry called "Mansfield, Ohio, Tearoom Busts." There was a degraded copy of a film called "Camera Surveillance." Produced by the Mansfield police and intended as an instructional film, "Camera Surveillance" demonstrated how the department had set up a sting operation in the tearoom under the central square of the city. The voice-over narration, as illiterate and hateful a text as I have ever heard committed to film, attested to the police's unenlightened attitudes. While I knew that these attitudes existed – indeed, they still do – in "Camera Surveillance" I saw that they were not only acknowledged as official policy, but held up as a standard for other police forces to imitate.

"Camera Surveillance" inspired me to produce a work about the busts. I chose to re-edit the material I found and to present it silent, without commentary. I considered the voice-over narration distracting and the images powerful (and self-explanatory) enough to stand on their own. Since that time, "Camera Surveillance" has vanished from the Internet, while Mansfield 1962 can be seen on my website, www.williamejones.com.

While I was at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, doing post-production work on other videos, I continued to research the cases relating to Mansfield 1962 at the Ohio Historical Society. Someone at the Wexner put me in touch with Bret Wood, the director of Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films. [Editor's note: Wood is Felicia Feaster's husband.] Part of that film deals with the tearoom busts, since Highway Safety Foundation in Mansfield lent the police the equipment they used to shoot the evidence footage. Hell's Highway includes very brief excerpts of this film. Unlike the source of Mansfield 1962, this material is in vibrant color. I asked Wood where he had found the footage, and if I could use it for my own work. He had gotten it from a former Mansfield chief of police, who had been storing the film in his garage for years. The two of them donated the film to the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. Wood made a video transfer of the film before giving it to Kinsey, and it is a copy of this tape that he generously allowed me to use to make Tearoom.

You initially thought about using the footage for a documentary project, but decided to just show it "as is" to some extent. Why did you decide to exhibit the film this way? Have you manipulated the film in any way?

Aside from opening and closing titles, I changed the footage in one way. I took the last reel of the footage, which contained images of the location and of the police walking through the restroom where they did their surveillance, and placed it at the beginning of Tearoom, so that it could function as an establishing sequence. I present the surveillance footage as it was shot and assembled in chronological order by the police.

I don't want to obscure the actions of the police by imposing my own decisions on the material. The footage was not the product of an automatic camera. It required people to operate it. While shooting this footage, the police cameramen, Bill Spognardi and Dick Burton, made many decisions about camera position, camera movement, duration of shots, perhaps even choice of subject. The decisions regarding what and when to shoot were effectively judgments of which men – and indeed, which parts of men's bodies – were worth scrutinizing. I want to preserve the cameramen's decisions so that spectators can take a look at them and form their own ideas about what was going on. Tearoom is evidence of men engaging in criminal activities under the eye of the law, but it is also a record of men hiding unseen and photographing others masturbating and having sex.

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