Monthly Archives: December 2013

Publics of the Toilet

 

{NOTE: In October I started writing a Yelp review about apexart. After writing the first two sentences I realized I could turn it into a submission to their annual Unsolicited Proposals contest, which was being advertised at the time. I figured it didn’t have a great chance of winning but wrote it anyway, knowing that I could at least use it as a blog post. Maybe I will also write and post the Yelp review but I was planning to give them two stars and after ranking 87th in their contest it might come off as sour grapes so maybe I won’t.}

apexart is the only non-profit exhibition space in New York that doesn’t let visitors use the restroom. Artists Space, White Columns, Art in General, the museums–they all have places where people can relieve themselves. But not apexart!

This is a banal observation. But it offers an opening onto a series of questions about how architectural environments demonstrate concern (or disregard) for the needs of life. In her book Museum Bodies, museologist Helen Rees Leahy cites mid-nineteenth-century accounts of women fainting at the British Museum due to a lack of lavatories. It’s part of an investigation into how museums have always regulated bodies and prescribed physical behavior–a missing prologue, as it were, to Brian O’Doherty’s celebrated critique of the white cube and its erasure of life from the space of art. The situation at apexart is relevant not only to traditions of disembodied gallerygoers but also to the conditions of neoliberal citycraft. The number of public restrooms in New York per capita is vanishingly small. Does a body only truly materialize in urban space when it becomes a paying customer at a commercial establishment? When nature calls today’s flaneur, must he answer it at Starbucks? Municipal responsibility for the people’s bodily needs, as for so much else, has been delegated to corporate persons, the managers of privately owned public spaces. Meanwhile, on the privately owned public spaces of the internet, potty talk flourishes. Recently I saw this tweet: “i like toilet paper commercials cuz theyre about touching buttholes but never come out and say ‘this is the best for touching buttholes'” If you look at Amazon reviews of toilet paper, however, touching buttholes is all anyone talks about. Perhaps the physical body in the museum or in the city is less spectral than its grotesque, collectively carnivalized online counterpart, which weaves through the network’s nodes like an endlessly unspooling roll of Charmin.

“Publics of the Toilet” is an exhibition project that attempts to address these issues. The gallery will be used for a series of readings, performances, screenings, and talks; participants in these events will include artists and writers concerned with abjection and social being, the circulation and management of bodies in public space, andtoilet humor, broadly construed. Rather than displaying artworks, I will fill the gallery walls with “bathroomreading”–clippings of jokes, anecdotes, poems and bits of text selected in consultation with the exhibition’s participants. Last but not least, I plan to temporarily fix the lack of a public restroom at apexart. A large part of the exhibition budget will be spent on the rental and maintenance of a portable toilet, to be installed in the gallery for the exhibition’s duration. (Maintenance should not be too difficult, as I doubt many visitors will avail themselves of the john.)

[speculative list of possible participants has been redacted]