In Venice, Center of Cruising, a Biennale Show About Hooking Up

VENICE — On a recent night on the island of Giudecca, a water taxi ride across the lagoon from the many cocktail parties marking the opening of the Architecture Biennale here, the curators of a scrappy pavilion were focusing on cruising of a less nautical sort.

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In Venice, Center of Cruising, a Biennale Show About Hooking Up
Phillip R. Denny
, New York Times

VENICE — On a recent night on the island of Giudecca, a water taxi ride across the lagoon from the many cocktail parties marking the opening of the Architecture Biennale here, the curators of a scrappy pavilion were focusing on cruising of a less nautical sort.

In the main space of the so-called Cruising Pavilion — an exhibition devoted to the places and practices of casual sex — sheets of plywood were pierced by a profusion of glory holes, a hallmark of anonymous gay hookups.

A dapple of scarlet lamplight shone through the holes, giving the space the ambience of an illicit cathedral. The floor was littered with colorful condoms and other sexual accouterments.

The effect was maximal, but in this show on the periphery of the Biennale, it was accomplished with economy.

“We had no one funding this project, and no institution behind us,” said Octave Perrault, a Paris-based architect and one of the curators of the Cruising Pavilion. “It was just friends helping out and funds from our own pockets.”

Perrault and the pavilion’s other curators — Pierre-Alexandre Mateos, Rasmus Myrup and Charles Teyssou — landed on the idea for the show based on their shared experiences with cruising and curating. It seemed right, they said, at a time when LGBT people face enduring violence and oppression around the world, not to mention difficulties getting a gay wedding cake made in the United States.

“Cruising was a common subject for us, but we noticed there wasn’t a culture of exhibitions devoted to the topic,” Mateos, a Paris-based curator, said. “There wasn’t much interest from institutions, especially architectural ones, so we wanted to confront this subculture through architecture.”

Yet even in a Biennale inspired by the theme “Freespace,” the Cruising Pavilion stands out as an event with skin in the game.

In a manifesto that served as a guiding light for the exhibitors, the Biennale’s organizers, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, partners in the Dublin-based firm Grafton Architects, described their portmanteau as a “space for opportunity, a democratic space, unprogrammed and free for uses not yet conceived.”

That theme has a political edge, but few exhibitions go as far as the Cruising Pavilion.

The team found the venue, a former warehouse called Spazio Punch on Giudecca, away from the pressing crowds of the city’s tourist hot spots. Getting there involves a trip by vaporetto and a stroll among buildings that once comprised one of Venice’s industrial centers.

As visitors step through the entryway, they are greeted by a shadowy atmosphere evoking archetypal cruising sites. Two wood-framed towers — each three stories high and accessible by internal stairs — flank the expansive interior at the architectural and artistic heart of the pavilion. “We didn’t want this to necessarily look like an exhibition,” Perrault said. “We wanted to get our hands dirty, to show projects and artworks, but also to work with the space directly.”

The exhibition captures some of the thrill of its subject matter. On the opening night, poppers — inhalants sometimes huffed during sex for a quick high — were passed around like hors d’oeuvres, and a DJ played heavy beats for a fashionably dressed crowd dancing in the balmy air.

In foregrounding the history of this overlooked place on the sidelines of the Biennale, the exhibit made a point of reclaiming gay history and made a case for its place as a topic in contemporary architecture. Still, the pavilion predominantly focuses on cruising between gay men, though other members of the LGBT community are represented, too.

But the concept for the exhibition is, by its nature, limited. The curators — who began planning the show in February, a relatively short lead time — wanted to demonstrate the balance between historical ideas of cruising and its modern forms found in hookup apps like Grindr.

For the Spanish architect Andrés Jaque, director of the Office for Political Innovation and a professor at Columbia University, who designed one of the exhibits in the Cruising Pavilion, Grindr is key to understanding how social media allows “users to create another reality that is not necessarily following the existing rules of offline space,” he said.

Jaque (pronounced HA-kay) recreated a domestic scene inside one of the towers. An inflatable mattress is installed on the plywood floor, accompanied by a MacBook laptop that screens films by his architecture firm. The videos illustrate Grindr’s use as more than a technical expedient to hooking up.

One film follows Syrian refugees living in Europe, who used the app to share hard-won wisdom with new arrivals. There, the app fostered connections between refugees, who exchanged tips for facing fundamental challenges like navigating immigration bureaucracy, looking for a job or finding a place to live.

“It was an opportunity for the app to become a platform for people to offer each other support,” Jaque said.

The project also highlights the negative potential of the app in the hands of oppressive regimes. One film documents how Grindr has been used by government vice squads to track gay men, as in Saudi Arabia, where Jaque said individuals can face prison sentences for same-sex activity.

Elsewhere, the Cruising Pavilion shines a revelatory light on familiar sites. The architect Charles Renfro, a partner with the ever-busy firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the designers of the High Line in New York, the renovation of the Museum of Modern Art and the soon-to-open Shed in Hudson Yards, contributed two works from the firm’s Blur Building, completed in 2002.

That project, an open-air pavilion for the Swiss Expo in Yverdon-les-Bains, immersed visitors in a catwalk structure shrouded in fog and hovering over Lake Neuchâtel.

“The atmosphere of the Blur pavilion was quite literally that of a steam room, a public space that makes private action possible,” Renfro said. “It’s the logic of an obscured atmosphere that allows for transgressive behavior to be undetected by all but the knowing participants.”

The curators of the Cruising Pavilion included the full sweep of cruising’s past, comparing the exhibition’s recent works to historical instances of cruising. It departs from the Biennale’s mainstream in both subject and format; critics have said as much, describing it as a world apart from presentations in the Giardini and a provocative — but not frivolous — take on a once-taboo topic. As it happens, the pavilion’s exhibition space is not far from one of Venice’s most notorious historical hookup spots: a 19th-century garden on the east side of Giudecca.

“It’s literally the Garden of Eden,” Teyssou said, referring to the garden’s onetime owner, the English aristocrat Frederic Eden. In its heyday, the spot was visited by the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke, Henry James, Marcel Proust and a young Jean Cocteau, whose recollections of the garden are captured in a 1909 poem dedicated to his lover Langhorn Whistler, the nephew of Oscar Wilde.

The curators were able to briefly reopen the garden, which has been shuttered for decades, on the first day of the exhibition.

“This,” Perrault said of the garden, “is where these gay heroes were going.”

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