The season opening of the HAU Theater never got as much attention as the current one thanks to the installation project Wanna Play from the Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven. The artist created a physical chat box right in the middle of Heinrichplatz in Kreuzberg. In his glass container he is planning to live until the 15th of October. During this period of time he will only communicate with the outside world through gay dating apps like Grindr trying to hook up with men, but not for sex but for other social activites inside the box. The idea was to criticize the explicit and care-free sexual behaviour of gays with the app. Turning the world of Grindr upside down he wanted to just make appointments for harmless dates: “I will play chess with them, have breakfast, make pancakes, we’ll shave one another or read to one another from our favourite books,” Dries Verhoeven writes in a statement about the project.
But in the end nothing was really harmless about this project. All digital conversations were projected live in public on his pavilion so that everyone stopping by could read them. The faces of the chat partners were made unrecognizable but some argue that it was not really anonymous enough (if you took a picture you could easily remove the uv-filter through photoshop) . But the problem that made most people furious and legitimately offended was the fact, that he did not inform his chat partners about the fact that they and their conversation were part of a public “art” installation. The rage got viral and the story of Parker Tilghmann who fell into the “trap” spread all over the internet. To respond to the massive protest from the public and the queer community the artist and the HAU Theater decided to interrupt the performance for an open discussion tonight 19h at Hau 2 (Hallesches Ufer 32, 10963 Berlin). There will be the possibility to ask and criticize the artist directly in an open dialogue. Some questions I would like to ask the artist and more critical thoughts about the project after the jump.
UPDATE: Following the public discussion on October 5, HAU Hebbel am Ufer is hosting a further talk on October 15. Short statements will be given by sex researcher Martin Dannecker, internet activist Nathan Fain and journalist and blogger Kevin Junk. The discussion will then be opened up to questions from the audience, at which time Dries Verhoeven and Annemie Vanackere, artistic and managing director of HAU Hebbel am Ufer, will also participate. Moderation will be provided by journalist Martin Reichert. The event is free and begins at 8 pm at HAU1.
When I first heard about the project way before all the protest started I was interested but also a little bit sceptical. On a personal note I have to admit that I never used an online dating app (my phone is simply too old) so I could not really understand the artist’s problem with Grindr to begin with. I found his goal to open a dialogue about the way we are encountering each other interesting, but somehow also mundane. I thought: “If you want to play chess or have breakfast with a nice guy then just do it, why do you need an art project to do so”. He described the experience with the app, as if the app was somehow forcing him to have carefree sex with strangers. Maybe I am naive but I think that having sex or not having sex is still a conscious decision (at least if you are sober). It’s like the people telling me they HAVE to take drugs just because the life in Berlin.
The existence of an app like Grindr is a facilitator of a certain behaviour but not the cause. And actually I know quite some people who engage in “normal” dates trough apps like Grindr. To sum it up I was not really sure if the topic behind the project itself was as relevant to explore but I was sure that it would get quite some attention from the media because that’s what happens to all theater/art projects with a sex topic. But this time the criticism did not come from the conservative wing as maybe the artist and the theatre expected but from the creative queer community itself.
By scouting all the online discussions and controversies I found a comment that sums up with a great rhetoric most of the criticism I can agree with. It comes from Ashkan Sepahvand and I hope he is fine with me quoting him:
Your complete lack of ethics in your ignorance of basic protocols of privacy, consent, and participation is unjustified, and to use the excuse of “art” as a space where “anything is possible” and you are just doing “your work” is hand-in-hand with what Hannah Arendt sensitively described as the “banality of evil”. What is “evil” according to Arendt’s reading of Eichmann is simply the refusal to think, or even, that no thinking was ever a thought to begin with. Your project lacks thinking: you do not think about the implications this has for individuals’ personal feelings, you do not think about the implications this has for the public imagination in relation to what they know or do not know about homosexuals, you do not think about the deeper and much more complex mechanisms of neoliberalism and identity-performance politics that go beyond simple representational logic, and you do not think of what responsibility an artist – as an agent of imagination – has towards society as a whole. Your work here offers no discursive possibility in its public mockery of live human subjects, so to use the word “discourse”, which refers to thought, when you yourself do not think, is a devaluing of the genuine intellectual work being done by the likes of other scholars, artists, and activists who are tackling the same “subject” as you. You offer nothing more than polemics, making your project into a poster-perfect PR campaign for neoliberal selfishness, rather than what could have been, if you had engaged in thought, a genuine conversation about what it means for the soul to live under the sign of technosexually mediated capitalism today.
The apologies or the statements of the artist himself on the other hand are not very convincing in my opinion. I really wonder how he and the whole team did not think about privacy and why they did not make it more clear and transparent for the chatpartners that they were part of an art project. Actually the whole scandal is not even that innovative. Artists have breached the privacy of others for centuries. How many authors or journalists have published stories that were told to them in private. How many photographers have taken nude pictures and sold them to magazines or even uploaded them to the internet without the permission of the model. This makes the whole scandal not less of a problem especially for the HAU theater who should have checked and secured the safety of the audience (and of the involuntary participants). Especially in times were apps like Grindr are used by gay haters in countries like Egypt or Russia for example to chase gay men, this way of outing others is more controversial than ever before.
Still I am looking forward to the open discussion tonight. I want to know if the artist regrets the way he planned the project. I want to ask if he thinks that going back into the pavilion has any artistic value after the whole scandal. And also I want to know if he will ever feel save again in Berlin. As legitimate the criticisms towards the project are I found the internet witchhunt against Dries Verhoefen definitely frightening and it made me aware how rage and aggression can grow and multiply through the internet and become something really dangerous. Therefore I hope the project will end as soon as possible without any more people getting harmed (and this include of course the artist himself).