Five days into his public performance art piece, Wanna Play? Love in Times of Grindr, the Berlin performance center Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) announced yesterday it’s pulling the plug on Dries Verhoeven, whose project has drawn widespread criticism for violating gay men’s privacy and exploiting users on the gay dating app, Grindr.
For Wanna Play?, which was partially funded by the Dutch embassy, the Dutch performance artist committed to live in a glass trailer erected in one of Kreuzberg's public squares for 15 days, during which he would chat with men on Grindr and invite (read: lure) them over using one of five smart phones he brought with him. His conversations were projected onto a large wall behind him, and video of his box was streamed live online.
The interactions weren't meant to be sexual. On the contrary, Verhoeven hoped to challenge what he perceived to be an increasingly sexualized and superficial gay community. In an age where dating apps are more frequently replacing the need for public meeting places for gay men, Verhoeven wrote in the project’s manifesto that he fears gays have constructed a new “invisible closet,” again hiding their sexuality from public view.
Instead of sex, Verhoeven wanted to “seduce men to satisfy his non-sexual desires,” including: playing chess, making pancakes, shaving each other’s beards, and reading to one another from their favorite books.
In order to protect the privacy of the men with whom he interacted, he hid screen names and distorted their pictures—arguably not enough—by rendering them in the negative.
But here's the thing, and it's a huge thing: Verhoeven never told the men that they were part of a public art performance. Not until they showed up to his big glass spectacle, being live streamed to the Internet and watched by a public crowd in one of Kreuzberg’s busiest squares, did his conversation partners realize they were actors in his social experiment.
image via Parker Tilghman
That’s what happened to Berlin-based artist and performer Parker Tilghman, a former contributor to this publication, who’s been a leading figure in the outcry against Verhoeven’s performance.
On Thursday, the second day of the installation, Tilghman chatted with Verhoeven who invited him over to shave his beard. Curious, Tilghman made his way to what he believed was Verhoeven’s private residence. When he stepped off the U-Bahn he found a large screen displaying their conversation before the public square, with details about where he lived, his dog, and his picture.
Outraged, Tilghman, physically confronted Verhoeven, punching him and shouting at crew members. He took to Facebook recounting the experience, writing, “I … feel violated in a way that is impossible to fathom. That feeling of violation is devastating.”
His story was picked up almost immediately by Dazed Digital, Bullett, and Die Berliner Zeitung, inciting outrage from the public. Since then, much of the controversy has been playing out on Facebook. The following day, Verhoeven posted a response that, rather than acknowledge concerns over privacy, stated his belief that privacy never existed in the first place. He writes:
It is unfortunate that opposition has arisen surrounding my project “Wanna play?”. I find it regrettable that people actually feel their privacy has been infringed upon. I find the opposition exemplary in a time in which we, as homosexuals, are once again hiding and choosing to express our sexual feelings in (apparent) anonymity. That anonymity is, I believe, a myth.
Verhoeven did change tact and began telling participants at the beginning of their interactions that they were being broadcast publicly. But the damage had been done. Sunday night HAU hosted a public forum to discuss the piece and ultimately decided to end the performance 10 days early.
In a follow up post on Facebook, Tilghman, who has since hired a lawyer and has threatened to press charges, expressed his concern over Verhoeven’s willingness to use unsuspecting gay men for his project.
The autonomy and power over my sexual expression was taken and abused without my consent for Mr. Verhoeven’s own personal gain. Myself and others were used as fodder for his egotistical and narcissistic quest for artistic achievement.
While Verhoeven was busy bemoaning the loss of gay public spaces to the Internet, he was simultaneously erecting his own digital dystopia, where gay men can no longer expect privacy on the Internet. He misses the point that gay bars in gay neighborhoods frequented by gay people were never fully public places to begin with. They were safe enclaves away from a larger public, the kind Verhoeven was broadcasting his chat mates’ messages to.
The loss of these places is concerning. Indeed, Verhoeven brings up a number of important questions about the state of gay community in the digital age, although he waxes nostalgic for a time I’m skeptical ever existed and bemoans the loss of an intimacy I don’t think can be found in a bar. True, online dating makes showing interest easier and rejection less painful, and yes, perhaps we’re worse at face-to-face flirting for it, but does going to a park under the cover of night really imbue a sense of gay community or does it just feel like a more authentic way to find a quick fuck?
In building a glass structure in the middle of Berlin, Verhoeven didn’t do anything to rebuild public gayness or restore gay intimacy. He simply used Grindr for something other than sex. That’s not revolutionary; if anything, it illustrates Grindr’s value, not its deficit.
He’s certainly not the first to exploit Grindr for some artistic value. There’s Marc Adelman, who drew international criticism for his project, Stelen (Columns), in which he collected over a hundred dating website profile pictures of gay men posing at Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There was also the artist (who ironically kept her own name private), who pretended to be a gay man on Grindr in order to win a bet with her girlfriends to see who could get the most dick pics. She won. She then exhibited them at a gallery in Brooklyn.
In creating the project, Verhoeven wrote that one of the main issues with dating apps was that, for him, they reduced users to simple consumers of his sexual offerings. He found himself becoming more superficial and his own relationships deteriorating. He writes in his confession, “The men that I met then were the trophies of my digital hunt. The more their outward appearance fit my ideal image, the higher their value in the imaginary ranking that I kept of them and of my own accomplishments.”
And that’s the problem for Verhoeven. He has become the man of his own dystopian vision. He can’t see users as people.
(Image on top courtesy of HUA)