"Lady Wrestling, 'the video tape,'" anyone? How 'bout taking in some "John Sex and Co. Burlesque"? These were just some of the posters screaming at me during the opening of Royal/T Café's "East Village West" recently.
The place was a virtual provocativity-off: cocaine and heroine salt and pepper shakers, a kids picture book teaching first words through graffiti, a pre-fab breakup letter on a hanky, because we all know (s)he's gonna cry over you. And that was just the gift shop. Mister purple mannequin wearing tinsel in his banana-hammock was stuck behind plexiglass during the real show, which included Drag King Mo B. Dick as John Sex and a trio of Psych-out Dada go-go dancers.
Now, if that's just "another Tuesday night in WeHo" to me, maybe I've been in L.A. too long. But honestly, what I found most provocative was in stall number two. The art wasn't displayed in stalls. I'm talking about the bathroom.
Two rolls of toilet paper were mounted side by side on the stall door, and over one of them was a sticker that said, "Public." Number-one-or-number-two was no longer the question de commode. The conversation had been changed, people. So, do I use the roll for the public? I don't work there, after all. On the other hand, I am at opening night, and frankly, do I want to use the same roll as "everybody else"? How do I think of myself? How do other people think of themselves? I wonder which roll gets used up first. These were the thoughts running through my head as I... sat there... and frankly, the quilted two-ply was making me think more than anything else I'd seen that night.
So, I decided to get to the bottom of it, hoping beyond hope that someone was tallying the rate-of-rip for each roll. After nature finished calling, I got Royal/T on the line and found out that the "Public" sticker is actually a remnant from a previous exhibition called "The Public Anonymous." I admit to being caught with my pants down -- the choice wasn't in fact between Public and Private, but between Public and Anonymous. And once upon a time, there were two stickers. These were the adhesive brain children of Sarah "Billie" Bearse and Farida Amar, evolving from their desire to draw people's attention to their exhibit, housed in the two-way-mirror-cased VIP room at Royal/T that, while aptly "reflective," risked making the exhibit hard-to-find. Their goal? To make people curious, and to get them asking the question, "Which one do I want?" Publicity or anonymity?
During the exhibit, that choice was given to those participating via interweb, while patrons participating at the café had to do so publicly -- both groups were asked to submit messages through modified technology in answer to the question: If you could say anything, knowing you would be heard, what would you say? But the toilet tack was a "playful" -- plushful? -- "way to present the question [of publicity or anonymity] in a different context," explains Farida, noting that toilet paper is something that a lot of people in restaurants use. Tempted to reply "touché," I held back, for fear I'd be thought to be making a "tushy" joke.
Bearse added that, once out, the stickers "took on the role of asking us to consider our actions into categories of public or anonymous forms of engagement." She confides that she's "actually heard the phrase, 'I do my best Facebooking while sitting on the toilet!'," and that "this tells us something about the changing boundaries of public and private spaces, and the impact it has on the methods we use to project our identity out into the world. The stickers are a marker for this."
Finally, I got to ask my big question: whether the artists had noticed which toilet paper roll was getting more use. While it wasn't monitored in any scientific fashion (unfortunately), from Farida's personal experience, she found that whenever she went in there, Anonymous was always the smaller role.
But what happens now? The choice has changed. With one sticker down, this is evolving art. It no longer seems a choice, but a label: this roll is for the Public. On whether one sticker is as good as two, Bearse comments, "The stickers went out in pairs. The duality is important." If context is everything, it should be interesting to see what happens next, as, at the time of our conversation, The Anonymous Public was set to take their show on the road -- first to Occupy Boston in Bewey Square, and then on to Occupy New York. Much like the occupants, the stickers will probably not find themselves within reach of toilet paper rolls, but Farida assures us there is hope for the toilets in the future, when the exhibit returns to a proper establishment -- y'know, one with plumbing.
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What's Royal/T's take on the TP test? "Random things like that happen," says Amy Laha, director of events for the café. In addition to the "Public" sticker, Royal/T's restroom also sports a pair of eyes on one of the mirrors above the sinks. But the eyeballs were the work of a -- wait for it -- anonymous patron. Apparently that labelled roll of paper isn't the only public thing in the space -- Royal/T's philosophy is that the people that come in can treat their space like home, and if there's something they want to do to the space, then cool.
In a boom time for "public art," Royal/T is putting their money where their mouth is. It's a place where you can celebrate art's past, but you can also celebrate art's present -- while relieving your bladder -- and maybe leaving a little...creation of your own. One that doesn't need to be flushed, I mean. But if you go for it, just remember, the bar has been set... reaching distance from the toilet.