MINNEAPOLIS — Public bathrooms are sites where private lives meet public space. Central to any space but never centered, bathrooms are incredibly necessary and tremendously fraught. Though seemingly banal and unobtrusive enough to be forgotten after use, bathrooms are simultaneously sites of danger for some. Bathrooms are also places to seek solace, take a break, have sex, do drugs. Because these activities deviate from the engineered purpose — the universal need to void — bathrooms are, more than ever, subject to monitoring and policing.
Artist Emmett Ramstad, a trans artist living in Minneapolis, sees public bathrooms as contested spaces emblematic of how the United States functions. Ramstad’s inquiry into the current politics surrounding bathrooms begins with their formal aspects — the stall “legs,” the space underneath, the ubiquitous beige color — to open a dialogue about privacy, vulnerability, mundanity, serviceability, shame and pleasure, segregation, and access. Ramstad’s sculpture, installations, and participatory actions unpack the architecture of social and moral codes that organize the physical space of the bathroom. He is currently working on an artist book called Quasi-Public, Semi-Private that will be released in November. When debates about bathrooms occupy the Texas legislature and tweets dictate the fates of transgender people in the military, Ramstad’s query is especially timely and relevant.
Risa Puleo: In works like “Watching You Watching Me (Hunting Season)” (2017) you placed an elevated platform like the ones used as hunting blinds in front of a wall of standard bathroom partitions. While clearly about bathrooms, but not being overtly about trans people, you signal the power dynamics that occur at any policed boundary.
Emmett Ramstad: I built that sculpture in February 2017, right after the U.S. election when a lot of people I knew were talking about how vulnerable they felt, penned in and watched. I built my own wall from bathroom stall components to draw attention to how anti-transgender bathroom legislation distracts us from talking about the ongoing enforcement of exclusionary policies that create walls. Bathroom bills encourage people to police gender by monitoring public restrooms in the same ways that “respectable citizens” are called on to monitor their own neighborhoods for criminals or terrorists (read: people of color, Muslims, or people who look “different”). People are rewarded for exhibiting fear and making themselves monitors. But this is not specific to trans people; it’s a pattern of state securitization. When I built “Watching You Watching Me (Hunting Season),” I wanted to create tension between the position [of] the tower, and the area beyond the wall, the stall. Viewers can climb up into the platform and look over the wall to see what’s there. But they are vulnerable when they are standing alone on the platform. There is vulnerability in both watching and being watched.
RP: In another work, “Safe,” (2016) the open space above and below a freestanding bathroom stall has been filled in by a picket fence. The juxtaposition of the fencing with the bathroom made me think of gated communities and gender neutral, single stall bathrooms. Both models seem to be material manifestations of a neo-liberal agenda and the increasing privatization and isolation of body. Museums in particular like to signal that single stall bathrooms are gender neutral, but is a bathroom really gender neutral if one person at a time can use it?
ER: That is an interesting question, what is neutrality? Is gender ever neutral? Perhaps these so called neutral ones are actually the segregated ones? I think about how the common bathroom stall colors are variations of “neutral” beige, the same tones that are popular Home Depot carpet colors, siding on homes in the suburbs, khaki uniforms — these product colors are being sold as neutral or customizable but are so industrialized. Stores and commercial buildings buy these steel bathroom partitions so that they are the same, recognizable across different kinds of spaces. Neutral is produced as something you can really see difference against. And, yes, the fence is emblematic of this neoliberal agenda in the United States and the idea that one can purchase safety, privacy, and freedom if you have the means. Single stall “gender neutral” bathrooms awkwardly reflect the institutions that make them. “Just buy those trans people a bathroom so that they stop trying to come into ours; that will fix it. Keep them separate so that we don’t have to feel confused.” I’m not sure this strategy will ever fix the problem, which is so much about segregation, othering.
RP: Of course, we use bathrooms for more than voiding bowels. There is also a banality to the bathroom, and the potential for encounter — sexual, aggressive, congenial, it’s a place to take a break, gossip, cry, talk on the phone. You and I talk on the phone in that bathroom a lot, even for this interview. The phone in the installation “Stall” reminds me that both toilets and phones are two types of portal spaces.
ER: Yes, they are portal spaces! I was interested in the ways that phones and bathrooms are similar; they are this way to get away from the present moment. “Hold on, I have to take this call” or “I’ll be right back, I just have to dot dot dot.” But bathrooms and telephones are also sites for potential connection. In “Stall,” there is a sign that says “If the phone rings, please answer.” I’d call the stall at random times and talk to visitors who choose to enter the bathroom stall to answer the phone. There is a kind of thrill when an art piece is calling you, but also a thrill about doing the illicit act of talking on the phone while you are peeing or taking a poop. This piece was a jumping off point for my next series of participatory works called “Calling Stations” which consist of bathroom stall partitions laid on the floor with a birch wheelchair access ramp, a chair and a phone number handwritten on the wall. The phone numbers in the two companion installations connect participants to each other or to my cell phone. I was answering strangers’ calls all the time, doing any number of mundane things, including going to the bathroom. Encounters now with cell phones feel very different because you can screen every call.
RP: During your exhibitions, you also change the signage of the art space’s bathroom —often in an ad hoc way like marker on printer paper. The form speaks to bathroom graffiti but also shifts the state of sex-segregated bathrooms to gender neutral. Can you speak to the potential of the artist and institutional critique to intervene in public space and legislation?
ER: I realized I was making work about the intimacy of daily life, including materials found in bathrooms like toothbrushes and soap, but I wasn’t addressing the intimacies of the spaces where I was exhibiting. The Rochester Art Center had sex-segregated bathrooms next to where my work was being exhibited. So I proposed to do a piece “You’re Welcome” (2016) which involved replacing the gendered signage with circular mirrors on which I wrote the words “You’re Welcome” in permanent marker. The text addresses the bathroom user. YOU are welcome, as in please come in, or colloquially you’re welcome to the person who says thank you for the unmarked bathroom. I was exerting some rare art privilege by making a piece that alters the institution’s design. Rochester Art Center permanently converted one of their bathrooms to all-gender after my show, as they didn’t have any before my exhibit. I decided to continue variations of this piece everywhere I exhibit now. I have made one at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I’ve also made super temporary signs that say “the bathroom” that have been torn down. Unlike the move to make single stall bathrooms “gender neutral,” I am making these multi-stall bathrooms “gender together.”
RP: Can you talk about scale in your work? Right now you are working on a miniature model of a line of bathroom partitions? This dramatic shift in scale seems to shift the conversation to access and disablement.
ER: As well as social and sexual spaces, bathrooms are also where trans and disability issues meet. I am curious about how tall or long or big a wall has to be to keep someone in or out. The standard stall size keeps lots of people out, disabled people in particular but also fat people for whom “standard” is always too small. Restroom architecture calculates how much of the population will need an “accessible” stall and how to provide the minimum necessary while maintaining an idea of the “normal” person who can squeeze into a tiny stall. The yet-to-materialize border wall boasts so much strength in length or height, yet it ends at some point. It is symbolic as much as functional. So I thought if I made a miniature wall that looked like bathroom stall components I could have a conversation about these issues together. The miniature wall hangs out on the floor, barely visible: you would trip over it if you didn’t think it was an art piece. I have played with the idea of building a full scale ramp to go over the wall, but also full size ladders–playing with scale, but also ideas of access. I’m thinking about calling the piece “To: Texas,” a gift of an easily built, maintained, and surveyed joint border and bathroom wall. If artists were paid to build the wall, like a WPA project, and we each did it in our medium, this would be mine: easily dismantled, traversed over/thru, knocked-down, comical, demi-bathroom wall.