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BERKELEY, California — Marc Adelman’s project “Stelen (Columns)” has stayed on my mind since I first heard of it early this year. The work is a collection of over 100 images of men posing at Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Germany that Adelman culled from various gay dating websites. The work is controversial in that the subjects’ self-portraits have, unbeknownst to them, been used as an art project which eventually made its way into New York’s Jewish Museum, where it garnered national attention. One of the subjects included in the show, Tim Rooks, threatened legal action against Adelman, and the work was eventually taken down from display.
Was the removal of the work censorship on the part of the Jewish Museum? Did Adelman have the right to use the images? Why were there so many men using this site as a backdrop — was it callousness or something more? Although some time has passed, I reached out to Adelman via email to try and understand more about the project. Unfortunately for legal reasons Adelman couldn’t answer many of my questions regarding the lawsuit directly, but he does shed some much-needed light on the project as a whole.
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Ben Valentine: What were the circumstances that led you to this project?
Marc Adelman: I studied in Berlin on a scholarship in 2003–2004. I ended up staying a second year and have returned to Berlin several times since leaving in 2005 to complete my MFA in Chicago. Upon returning to Germany in the summer of 2007, a colleague of mine asked me if I had seen the images on GayRomeo — the ubiquitous gay dating site in Germany — of men posing in the Eisenman memorial. I had not seen any at that point (the Memorial was unveiled right before I left Berlin in the spring of 2005), but sure enough that summer of 2007 they started popping up all over the website.
By 2009, I had collected upwards of 100 images. Approximately 70 of them were shown in Berlin in the fall of 2009 as part of a weekend long exhibition at Tape — a temporary exhibition space cum club cum warehouse in Mitte. I should note that a friend of a friend had also been collecting the images at the same time — unintended as a formal art work — and ended up sending me around thirty images that now comprise the series of 150.
When I first saw the images I thought they were captivating but somewhat inexplicable; why did each of these men pose in the Holocaust Memorial and upload the image to their dating profile? Why strike these playful, flirtatious, and times overtly sexual gestures at such a historically vested public monument? I honestly did not know what to make of the images in the first several years of collecting them other than feeling that something was indeed being communicated across the series.
BV: Why do you think these men chose to pose at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe?
MA: I never viewed the images that comprise Stelen as irreverent as I think this would be reductive at best. There is a significant recent dialogue in queer studies about the predominantly unconscious ways in which the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s reverberates through contemporary queer life. Jewish lives and queer lives have been both informed as well as transformed by loss. It’s a central aspect to both cultures, and one that has greatly influenced my understanding of the images that comprise Stelen and their relationship to the cultural history of HIV and AIDS. To live a queer life is to a live a life that is ineluctably haunted. Still here. Still queer. Perhaps still getting used to it. I posit the work in relationship to a constellation of issues around queerness and temporality — faith, memorialization, belonging, and illness.
None of this is to write off what I think is a deep affinity between gay men and minimalist form. There is something to be said for the obvious appeal of the butch aesthetic and cruising ground that the concrete columns appear to create in Stelen. However, in this instance I think it’s important to think through the complexities of cruising, and to acknowledge its many facets and operations. “Cruising,” as art historian David Getsy has suggested, “can be understood as a synecdoche of a larger, life-long process of looking for, finding, losing, and looking again for intersubjective connections, be they based in eroticism, in identification with a community, in love, or in comradeship.” (Getsy, “Mourning, Yearning, Cruising: Ernesto Pujol’s Memorial Gestures,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Volume 30, Number 3, September 2008, p. 18.)
BV: Did you ever reach out to any of the subjects?
MA: Yes, I chatted with several of the subjects very early on at the beginning of the project. I unfortunately don’t recall the specifics. Ultimately, I chose not to discuss the context of the images within an art project with any of the subjects as I didn’t want to be clouded by the responses as to why they chose to pose in the Memorial.
BV: Were you worried about requiring permissions to use the images?
MA: As several press pieces have indicated, GayRomeo, like many similar sites, is free and requires solely the use of an email address/username and password to access the site. As an artist in 2012, it’s my understanding that an individual posting an image to the web (as Maya Benton noted in her Tablet article) relinquishes a significant amount of control over future uses of that image.
In terms of appropriating digital images and what that means on a global level I feel there are far reaching implications that have not been reasoned with especially in regards to something like the use of a known LGBT website. “Online privacy” strikes me as a major oxymoron. Is there any greater means of publicly outing oneself than by posting a photo that clearly reveals one’s identity to a website that is known to cater to men seeking various types of relations with other men? Gay, straight, swinger, dating website, or Facebook, there is still a sense that some semblance of privacy is being maintained in this regard when it appears to be quite the opposite.
This past spring I received a link to a website called “Grindr Remembers.” It features images of men posing in the Eisenman memorial culled exclusively from Grindr and GayRomeo that users have found, copied, and sent to the website for display. It has been online for about two years. It’s a very strong indication of the ways that digital media is disseminated, the lack of control that one has over an image once it hits the web, and that we have merely glimpsed what it means in regard to cultural production to exist within such a massive flow of information.
BV: Can you talk about the Jewish Museum’s decision to take down your work?
MA: For various reasons I can’t address that, but right now no legal action has ensued, but I can say that the work is certainly staying in the permanent collection.
BV: Have you talked with any of the subjects after the Jewish Museum’s decision?
MA: Beyond the two apologies I offered directly to Mr. Rooks I have had no other dialogue with any of the subjects.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: A small portion of Adelman’s answers were grafted by the artist from a gallery talk he gave at the Jewish Museum in New York on April 2, 2012 onto this interview.