Gay people have been cruising for sex in public spaces — like bars, back alleys and bathhouses — throughout history. And now, an exhibition at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennial called the Cruising Pavilion will examine these spaces and the social role they’ve served.
The Venice Architecture Biennial, an exhibition of Italian architecture held every other year in Venice, Italy, typically features panels, gatherings and academic talks by architects and art historians. But the Cruising Pavilion at this year’s event will feature works from 20 artists that explore sexual spaces in different ages, and not just ones used by gay men.
For instance, the Cruising Pavilion’s Instagram account includes a blueprint for Claude Nicolas Ledoux’s 1780 “Maison du Plaisir” (a House of Pleasure), an architectural way for European governments to reform municipal sex work. The blueprint was part of a radical treatise discussing the role of art, morals and legislation in social-sexual health.
A 2015 installation entitled Cruising Extinction, Gaybar shows an empty and strangely sterile bar flooded with colored fluorescent light, flat screen TVs and a translucent rainbow flag amid a bar of black stools and chrome tables. It looks unromantic and sanitized compared to the world show in Patrice Chéreau’s 1983 French film L’Homme blessé (The Wounded Man), a film where sexual encounters happen in a dark, wet train station tunnel.
In a statement, the Cruising Pavilion curators write:
From the 19th century Vauxhall pleasure gardens in London to the 80’s Mineshaft BDSM club in New York, the Cruising Pavilion looks at the conflictual architecture of cruising… Cruising is the illegitimate child of hygienist morality. Relegated to the realm of depravity, it feeds off its most structuring disciplinary features. In the bathrooms built for cleanliness and the parks made for peacefulness, the modern city is cruised, dismantled and made into a drag of itself. The dungeon becomes playful, the labyrinth protective and the baths erotic. If “architectural discourse is a deodorizer,” then cruising is the powerful human smell that haunts the dreams of Jean Genet.
Genet was a celebrated gay essayist and political activist whose work focused on marginalized people fighting against their oppressors.
Even though the pavilion celebrates the history of cruising, its curators fear that cruising and the idealistic impulses behind it are being erased.
“The commodification of LGBT culture has emptied established cruising grounds and replaced gay bars with condos,” the curators wrire. “Geosocial apps have generated a new psychosexual geography spreading across a vast architectonic of digitally interconnected bedrooms, thus disrupting the intersectional idealism that was at play in former versions of cruising.”