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What You Can Learn From Porn, at Berlin’s Gay* Museum.

Émilie Jouvet, „Marion in Bed“, 2009

Émilie Jouvet, „Marion in Bed“, 2009. Press Photo used with Permission.

A Preview of Porn That Way at the Schwules* Museum, Berlin. From 6 December 2014 to 31 March 2015. The exhibit is limited to those over 18 years.

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All around me curators are lining up pornographic images on the floor deciding how they should be hung. In which order should the men displaying their back passages be? The transsexuals’ labia on the adjacent wall? Should the Gengoroh Tagame manga appear on the same wall as the German graphics of Ralf König? Can a new wave of gay porn that quotes Walt Whitman be classified as ‘Romantic’? Should it be placed across from the Amateur porn collection?

‘Come look, this is my wall’, says Kevin Clarke, one of the curators of the exhibit, Porn That Way, opening this Saturday at the Schwules* Museum (Gay* Museum) in Berlin. Clarke has written prolifically on queer issues, and shows me a collection of images illustrating the rise of barebacking in gay pornography. The wall is one of a triptych, with ‘Romantic’ and ‘Realistic’, and is, of course, about the fetish of HIV-infected sperm. There’s a poster for ‘Bad Seed’, by Treasure Island Productions, a company that sells images of drug use implicated with the practice of penetration without protection. Shots of models who have managed second careers in the industry after infection are framed alongside a can of condensed milk.

„All American Jocks“, Typ Abercrombie-&Fitch-Model, des erfolgreichen Online-Studios Corbin Fisher fotografiert von Cameron Frost. Foto: © CorbinFisher.com . Press Photo provided by the Schwules Museum.

„All American Jocks“, Typ Abercrombie-&Fitch-Model, des erfolgreichen Online-Studios Corbin Fisher fotografiert von Cameron Frost. Foto: © CorbinFisher.com . Press Photo provided by the Schwules Museum.

‘What’s the Milchmädchen all about?’, I ask Clarke about the container.

‘Because some productions use it mixed with water, instead of the real thing’.

‘Aha’, I reply.

At the far end of the wall are pictures of young ‘dudes’. They are shirtless specimens in perfect health… muscled, tanned, relaxed, in natural environments. These ‘dudes’ ––hunks, jocks, athletic models––are the stars of barebacking porno flics produced by Corbin Fisher Productions. They are the inheritors of the body-consciousness at the height of the deadly epidemic of the 80’s I saw in the previous room, whose models have only perfected unmarked healthy bodies, with white socks and undies.

I tell Clarke, ‘These jocks spread complete denial, don’t they? It’s a world without HIV, where you are young and healthy and in the great outdoors, an idyll where the virus no longer exists. What a dangerous fantasy’.

Porn This Way, Schwules Museum

Porn That Way, Schwules Museum

‘But look here’, and he points me to the last photographs on the walls. After the ‘viral load’ fetishists, and those who sell denial, I’m looking for a little relief. And here I get it, with images of pornography directors who have battled to show that safe sex can also be sexy. The gay porn world’s only female pornographer, mr. Pam, trails her camera over her subjects, with a social responsibility responsive to the public health crisis.

Stand back and take a look at the whole wall now. It is a pictorial reflection on the multiplicity of responses, both psychological, and also professional and ethical, to a disease which more rarely kills in Germany, but is still incurable. As a whole, it seems a body of evidence, not a weighty judgement.

‘Thanks Kevin’. He’s been generous to walk me through the whole exhibit, and given this Gabinetto Segreto a strong narrative which tells so much about how a minorities eroticise themselves, sell that image, and struggle with intolerance. Pornography is also clearly a barometer for the public and legal environment, shaped along the way by the epidemic, crackdowns, and even state sponsorship (in one Swedish case, called Dirty Diaries). Then there’s the emerging influence of new technology.

Szene aus Falcons Jock Studio-Film Ramcharger (1984), mit Bob Bishop in der Hauptrolle (rechts). Das Bild wurde vom berühmten Setfotografen Fred Bisonnes aufgenommen. Foto: © FalconStudios.com . Press Photo provided by Schwules Museum Berlin.

Szene aus Falcons Jock Studio-Film Ramcharger (1984), mit Bob Bishop in der Hauptrolle (rechts). Das Bild wurde vom berühmten Setfotografen Fred Bisonnes aufgenommen. Foto: © FalconStudios.com . Press Photo provided by Schwules Museum Berlin.

Interestingly, there’s hardly any video in Porn That Way, nor computer monitors hooking you up to web, today’s preferred delivery method––quite the advance from all those nondescript brown envelopes delivered in the post. Clarke explains that the inclusion of video went beyond their resources. Remarkably, they had only about 5000 EUR for the whole exhibit, with potential donors showing generous displays of solidarity or lack thereof (reportedly, the famed Cadinot production house said to them that nothing is for free).  Another limitation, besides personnel and money, was the extensive archive of the Schwules* Museum itself. The institution moved only last summer to its new location on Lützowstraße in Schoeneberg, from Mehringdamm in Kreuzberg, and has a new mission to include lesbian, queer and trans sexualities. Before the museum was only Schwul (gay), now it has added an asterisk* to the museum’s name.

Zanele Muholi | Triptych, 2007, Stevenson Kapstadt. Press Photo used with permission from the Schwules Museum.

Zanele Muholi | Triptych, 2007, Stevenson Kapstadt. Press Photo used with permission from the Schwules Museum.

The archive, however, was focused until not too long ago on male homosexuality, meaning that there’s had to be a lot of digging for lesbian, trans and queer material for the exhibition, which has been forthcoming from generous loans and a few purchases. The predominance of gay male sexuality, however, seems more an anxiety of the curators than a fact of the exhibition, which does a good job of showing sexuality’s diversity. Trans porn, admittedly, seems in short supply, despite some examples such as Del LaGrace Volcano’s Sublime Mutations. Bringing a trans member onto the board of curators apparently did not work.

There’s been greater success in the Lesbian porn arena, and the exhibit asks tough questions including ‘What is Lesbian porn?’ or how important the sexuality of the spectator might be––especially since much of is called Lesbian porn is consumed by heterosexual men (incidentally, the same questions can be asked of the ‘Romantic’ gay porn of CockyBoys productions, consumed largely by so-called ‘Porn Moms’, or older women). One wall, about Lesbian S&M, asks whether it is it ethical for Lesbian porn to include suffering? Or is Lesbian sadomasochism a reproduction of male oppression?

‘There’s a tension between the groups represented here, between polished and unpolished porn.  What is then “Lesbian” porn? Often the lesbian pornography involves less polish––just look at the 1997 Berlin film, Airport. There are more pamphlets and manifestos, there’s often a political story underlying the product’, says Clarke, ‘You can’t say that about a lot of the gay male porn exhibited’.

(Yes, politics might be the difference. I sigh and thank dog for lesbians.)

Sascha Schneider | Triumph der Dunkelheit, 1896. Press Photo used with permission from the Schwules Museum Berlin.

Sascha Schneider | Triumph der Dunkelheit, 1896. Press Photo used with permission from the Schwules Museum Berlin.

The Museum responded to visitor critique that their recent exhibits have not been historical enough, and so this temporary exhibition is now organised into three chronological parts: In (porn in the closet), Out (Porn coming public with the pop art generation and the AIDS epidemic), and Go (porn after the Internet revolution). I sometimes wondered at how, especially in the first room, early Japanese images are casually placed alongside late 19th-century German or American products, crossing decades and continents. What kind of cross-cultural dialogue is being hinted at, if any? The exhibit is strikingly trans-Atlantic, and the non-Western examples seem like tokens. What is clear, of course, when exploring international trends, is how Germany was such a powerful force in sexual liberation before the Nazi liberation, with Berlin at its center (as charted in Yale historian Robert Beachy‘s fascinating book, just published, Gay Berlin), and what a long shadow the Nazi regime has cast on German life. Even until the late 60’s, the public sale of contraceptives was banned as against public decency in the West. And in the East, the first sex magazine was only published after the fall of the Wall, in 1990. A copy of the latter is on display in the exhibition.

‘East Germans, in a world without permitted pornography, masturbated to weekly magazines featuring naked athletes, displaying, without prudery, the idealised Socialist body’, says Clarke.

Porn This Way, Schwules Museum. DDR Porn.

Porn That Way, Schwules Museum. DDR Porn.

Court battles fought in the USA meant that country became the central distributor of sexually explicit material. This is not to equate the freedom of pornography with gay liberation, but rather to show how the question of public decency links the two. The exhibit then becomes a dialogue between America and Germany, which eventually remakes itself with reunification, and finally begins to sell an industrial aesthetic and kink, the underground techno wave, marketed by local firms like Cazzo productions. All this shows how, after decades in the doghouse, Berlin is finally back, and perhaps even moving away from strict binaries of gay/straight, and models one is so used to from across the Atlantic. Then again, the image of Berlin does not always align with reality.

Clarke says, ‘Visitors now come to Berlin and they expect it to be one big sex party. They’re at Folsom and think, “In Berlin you can do anything”, and are really shocked to discover that in reality the locals are still very conservative, and have called the police’.

Kevin Clarke, Curator. Porn This Way, Schwules Museum.

Kevin Clarke, Curator. Porn That Way, Schwules Museum.

Virtual space too, of course, has had a remarkable role in making porn available, but also could be a place of repression, if one thinks of the rise of internet censorship and the oppression of “Community Standards”. Facebook can ban users capriciously over a single example of nudity, and Apple shows similar puritanical caution. These issues are raised in the final segment of the exhibit, and I find they have even informed the kind of images made available to the public as press photos, and those I have chosen to post on my blog (the ones in the exhibit, you can imagine, are rather more exciting).

It also affects who can actually see what’s on at the Schwules* Museum. Clarke tells me, ‘It’s a loss that by German law, paragraph 184, this exhibit has to be “over 18”. Teenagers who have questions about sexuality, about their bodies, could actually come and learn something here’. And, indeed, the educational component is rather more in force at the public space of this museum, compared to what I presume teenagers are digging up for themselves online.

I thank my guide and walk out of the Schwules* Museum’s new glittering building, where they have lovingly (very very lovingly?) assembled so many images with very limited resources––a strange commentary on an industry worth in the billions. I’ve been lucky with my guide, and I hope the connective tissue between the various objects  is equally visible to the casual visitor (the textual commentary of the exhibit was posted only in a few places during my preview walk-through). I have not had such a titillating window into the society of material culture for some time.

On my way home, walking down Potsdamer Straße, a few blocks from the museum, wearing my thick parka against the ‘ass-cold’ (as the Germans call it) weather, I pass a LSD (Love Sex Dreams) a massive multi-story pornography emporium on the corner of Kurfürstenstraße. Outside it are dozens of haggard and aging prostitutes in scant clothing. I stop for a moment and feel strongly dislocated from the world of the museum.

Porn that Way is a celebration of sorts, while out here, faced with all those blinded windows and electric signs, I feel only tawdriness and oppression. Is the museum putting a pretty frame around life lived in the shadows? Around an industry known for its coercion and often violent objectification? Have I mistaken the vagaries of a nasty industry with the narrative of gay liberation? Or is the world inside the museum a kind of hope, a place for wishful thinking, a think tank?  Has one not here, outside, diagnosed a society––straight and queer––and found the cure just down the block. Is Porn That Way a much more political act than at first expected?

Porn This Way, Schwules Museum

Porn That Way, Schwules Museum