Over the course of 30 years, William E. Jones has produced a genre-defying body of work that includes films, videos, photographs, and texts. He alternately employs research, critique, autobiography, fiction, and appropriation to offer bracing—and often controversial—reassessments of the historical record. The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998) is an important video from a moment in Jones’s career when he was beginning to leave behind the world of independent documentary cinema for a more free-wheeling practice that existed—and continues to exist—at the margins between several disciplines. It is comprised entirely of footage from gay adult videos made in Eastern Europe in the first years after the arrival of capitalism. In this interview with Stuart Krimko, the gallery’s Research and Editorial Director, Jones discusses the video’s genesis, historical background, and continued relevance.
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Let’s start with the basics. Where did the material that makes up The Fall of Communism… originate, and how did it fall into your hands?
In the mid-1990s, I worked in a video store and saw the release of a wave of gay adult videos shot in Eastern Europe. They were products of a crude imperialist enterprise: cheap and nasty looking, with an atmosphere of coercion and cultural misunderstanding pervading them. Customers adored these videos, and expressed their breathless admiration whenever given the chance. The moment I saw the cover of Men of the Balkans, the first gay porn film shot in Bulgaria, I knew I had found a subject for a video. With little money or leisure time, I couldn’t travel to Eastern Europe to make a documentary; instead, I examined the internal evidence of the videos themselves. I found more than enough to inspire a work.
Sex tourism generally develops when white people from rich countries have the opportunity to fuck the people of the Third World. It almost never involves sex with poor white people. There have been two major exceptions: Germany between 1919 and 1933, and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. In the first instance, this departure from the norm was a prelude to fascism. In the second instance, it’s still an open question, and subject to national or regional variations. The Czech Republic has sustained a thriving sex economy for decades and not descended into fascism; but political outcomes in Hungary, Russia, and most recently, Poland, have not been hopeful.
I’m not proposing that the development of a sex industry simply brings fascism into being. It’s more a case of grotesque and cruel economic mismanagement causing unemployment, hyperinflation, and depression. Still, I was amazed to see signs of an epochal social transformation unintentionally documented in the tapes available for rent at my neighborhood video store. When I made The Fall of Communism…, such material had not yet been studied seriously. Gay porn was considered beneath scholars’ attention, but in its crudeness, I found it more appropriate as an object of historical analysis than masterpieces of film art, with all their insinuating rhetoric and idiosyncrasies of personal expression.
You make interesting use of many images that happen “around” the actual sex scenes: establishing shots, titles, and of course the screen tests all reveal important information about how market forces in the West are coming up against the economic situation in the East. The screen tests especially, which account for half the work’s duration, have particular power, as the director pokes and prods the young men. These scenes seem to have an allegorical feel to them, one that describes how two different economic systems, at two different points in their global trajectories, are coming into contact with one another.
In the socialist East, the elites had political power, but money was insignificant, in stark contrast with the capitalist West, where everyone knows that money buys power and influence. I think the boys in The Fall of Communism… had to learn this lesson, and they only fully understood it when they appeared in a porn video. All of the material I used came from the period after the initial euphoria following the fall of communism had worn off. By the mid-1990s, the centrally planned economies that had suddenly converted to capitalism were in terrible shape. At the most desperate moment, old people were forced to sell piles of family heirlooms on the street to make ends meet; the only thing young people had to sell was access to their bodies. Someone from the West could literally enslave naïve youths, if not permanently, then at least for the duration of a video’s production, and for as little as fifty US dollars.
These power relations seemed startling and new at the time, but they may have been just the latest instance of profound historical patterns. The Nazis who invaded the East during World War II considered the ethnic groups native to the region to be subhuman and fit for slavery. The ancestors of these people had emerged from serfdom about a century prior to the occupation. Before then, traditional aristocrats considered them as only so much chattel. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch sexualized scenes of domination and submission in his novel Venus in Furs (1870), and it’s no surprise that he was a nobleman from the Galician hinterlands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Speaking of slippery power dynamics, the screen tests made me think about Warhol. Do you think there’s any connection worth exploring there?
I think the motivation for appearing in a Warhol screen test is transparent: a wish to become a celebrity, or if the subject already is one, a wish to be immortal. Posing for a portrait by the most famous artist the world has ever known conferred enough glamour that sitting under hot lights for three minutes seemed like a small price to pay. You have to admire Warhol, a working class sissy in a fright wig able to convince everyone who was anyone in the 1960s to kiss his ass.
The motivations of the boys who appear in The Fall of Communism… are at once simpler and more complex than those of the swells who appear in Warhol’s Screen Tests. Of course, as one hapless subject says in my video, it’s all done “for the money.” But among male prostitutes, that’s the oldest line in the book. At least some of the boys were looking for a good time. Others thought they might satisfy their curiosity about Western capitalist perverts, ideally finding a sugar daddy one day, and in doing so, they would escape their dreary surroundings.
Perhaps a few of these kids had no idea whatsoever about what they were getting themselves into. Searching for clues in the looks on their faces is a pointless task. They are quite opaque, and that mystery, for me, is one of the best parts of the material. We’ll never know what these boys were thinking. Perhaps the middle-aged men they’ve become no longer even remember.
Do you have any sense of what non-West-backed gay porn from the Eastern Bloc looked like? Did any of that make it to the United States?
The only pornography I can recall from the socialist East is surveillance footage shot by intelligence services. I’ve seen movies of prostitutes with clients made by the Stasi (the German Democratic Republic’s Ministry for State Security) to compromise foreign visitors. I’ve never seen any same-sex encounters filmed for that purpose, but I’m sure such material existed. If anything got produced beyond the state’s reach in the Eastern Bloc during those days, it could only have circulated deep underground.
Companies like Bel Ami, CzechBoys and Lucas Entertainment were founded in the Czech Republic after the years dealt with in The Fall of Communism… (1993-98). Most other countries in Eastern Europe currently have governments hostile to gay porn production. The “wild west” period of the industry’s expansion has been over for quite some time.
The promises and failures of communism, as well as its visual iconographies, make frequent appearances in your work. I’m thinking of several movies, but also still-image works that make interesting use of the social realist depictions on currency.
Supposedly everyone loves a winner. I don’t. I think losers are more interesting, or at least we can learn something from their stories. I’ve developed a revulsion to triumphalist discourse. Every batch of nouveaux riches announces the end of history: all has changed, and the good times will last forever. By now, I’ve seen several generations of fools disabused of their illusions once the market crashes or cocaine has eaten away the cartilage in their noses.
I have this attitude because I was born late. The greatest period of prosperity in modern history ended when I was a child, and I came of age in a dying industrial town I had to escape (but to which I later returned to make my first film, Massillon).
I went to college around the time Reagan and Thatcher came to power and started bludgeoning us with the cudgel of neoliberal economic policy. I trained as a filmmaker some years after the experimental film scene became moribund in the US; I got out of graduate school at the moment when the art market collapsed in the early 1990s; my film Finished (1997) premiered at Sundance just as the “indie” bubble was bursting; and I published my first novel, I’m Open to Anything (2019), when literary fiction in the American publishing industry entered a critical moment that may prove to be terminal. An unsympathetic observer might say that I can’t resist boarding a sinking ship. I’m a child of the bust, and if you want to find someone who has faith in capitalism, you’d better look elsewhere.
Often my work is motivated by simple questions, for instance, What’s missing? or What hasn’t been noticed? For a few years, I collected currency and stock certificates. I decided to concentrate on examples that featured representations of workers, the source of the wealth embodied in these pieces of paper. This period culminated in the production of the video Model Workers (2014), a montage of currencies mainly from socialist countries and former colonies arranged in chronological order. It quickly became obvious to me that the currencies of powerful countries are, with the sole exception of the Swiss franc, as ugly as filth. There is an axiom here: a nation’s political and economic power is in inverse proportion to the beauty of its currency. With so-called hard currencies, the sense of repression is intense; it is not to be looked at, only used, and there is a total absence of images that the people who handle this money on a daily basis might identify with. In rich countries, workers make appearances on stock certificates, but only in the guise of allegorical figures. They are draped like ersatz classical statuary, standing or sitting in conventional poses rather than performing any productive task. Of course, paper stock certificates are obsolete, and banknotes seem to be headed that way. To me that adds to their appeal.
You’re beginning to hint at the range of your visual and material approaches, which has only become more varied with time. You’ve pursued this course at a moment when the contemporary art world increasingly shows its bias for recognizability and branding. Is this intentional, or a result of temperament, or both?
The various approaches you mention have defined my practice for a very long time, and it’s hard to disentangle what is part of an overarching artistic strategy, and what is the result of a personal intransigence in the face of market forces. You could call it an attempt to preserve some shred of individuality that’s not administered, or to use a more contemporary word, branded. The division of labor upon which capitalism has depended since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution deprives us of the ability to be fully human. We become our jobs, and anything that doesn’t contribute to a livelihood is supposed to fall away. Most people find this intolerable, if they have the leisure to consider the question.
In the context of art, I have systematically tried to subvert expectations, at my cost, I imagine. I’m fully aware that under favorable conditions, there are big rewards for recognizability. But they are ephemeral, and each turn of the market brings a new crop of aspirants hoping to enjoy a bourgeois lifestyle on the proceeds of art sales. At the risk of not being taken seriously by art industry operatives who have cash registers where their brains should be, I prefer to go where my curiosity leads. That doesn’t lend itself to sticking to a single visual style or medium. I think if circumstances obliged me to make nothing but what auction houses call “characteristic work,” I’d die of boredom.
William E. Jones (b. 1962, Canton, Ohio; lives and works in Los Angeles) has been the subject of many solo exhibitions and retrospectives at institutions, including the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (2015); Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri (2013); Austrian Film Museum, Vienna (2011); and ar/ge kunst Galerie Museum, Bolzano, Italy (2009). Recent group exhibitions include Histories of our Time, Kunsthaus Baselland, Basel, Switzerland (2019); FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, Ohio (2018); Remastered - The Art of Appropriation, Kunsthalle Krems, Donau, Austria (2017); IHME Contemporary Art Festival, Helsinki (2017); On Limits: Estrangement in the Everyday, The Kitchen, New York (2016); Ordinary Pictures, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2016); and Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles, France (2015). Jones’s work was featured in both the 2008 and 1993 Whitney Biennial exhibitions.
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