One of L.A. artist Kenneth Tam's most recent videos begins with Tam taping shut a big cardboard box. There's a man inside, we quickly realize, and he has an agenda.
“Have you ever wanted to be an exhibitionist?” the man asks calmly from inside the box like a doctor trying to cajole the truth out of a resistant patient. “Do you ever walk around the house with no clothes on?”
The box man keeps talking as Tam circles, eventually convincing Tam to undress so that the man can caress him through holes awkwardly cut in the cardboard. This video, which can be seen through Sunday at Latned Atsar gallery, is fueled by tension. It's not clear who has more control: the man who clearly wants into Tam's pants or the artist who's constrained him to a box.
“It's a negotiation of desires,” says Tam in an interview. He has been using Craigslist encounters as premises for his video work over four years now, but this was the first time he actually used the site's infamous “Casual Encounters” section to solicit collaborators. In his post, he included a photo and introduced himself as “an Asian male, 28, looking for someone to make a video of me.” There would be not actual physical contact. He'd provide the camera and offer a small fee, though he asked that his collaborator host the shoot.
“I was walking this fine line between Craigslist as a place for transactions with objects and transactions with desires,” says Tam. “More men were interested, of course.” One introduced himself as a photographer and said he would participate but, in exchange, he wanted to include Tam in his own project: a photographic compendium of nude male bodies. “I knew that wasn't something I was interested in,” says Tam, but the man persisted, saying he wanted to understand how someone like Tam, an artist, could be so inhibited. “He was almost playing the role of a sexual therapist.”
Tam suggested the box as a way to at once engage this man and keep his distance. He had read Kobo Abe's 1973 novel The Box Man, about a voluntarily homeless Japanese drifter whose box-home becomes a metaphor for self-inflicted anonymity and alienation. But in his video Tam, on the outside, seems more alienated than the man inside the box, who says, as the video ends, that the encounter would have gone differently sans cardboard walls: “Let's just say there are different things I could have done to get you more…relaxed.”
Tam began making the videos when still living in New York. “On Craigslist, unlike, say, eBay, every transaction culminates in a physical meeting often where you enter people's homes,” he explains. Initially, he would scroll through the “Items Wanted” section, where people list items they want. He'd then go find those items for them, and offer them up in exchange for a chance to shoot a video in their homes.
“At first, there was no interaction,” he says. For one early video, he sat watching the back of a man's head while the man job-searched online. “I thought he would be uncomfortable, but it was more alienating for me. I didn't really know what I was doing. I was almost mildly embarrassed that I'd made [the videos].”
When he enrolled in USC's Masters of Fine Art program and moved to L.A. in 2008, no one had seen his videos. He showed them to an instructor, who suggested he return to the project. He did, this time seeking out more interaction. He posted in the “Gigs” section, offering small fees to those who would shave him or let him sit in on dinner. Over time, he has adopted a persona — something close to neutral, calculated discomfort — and the underlying tensions and erotic energy that inevitably occur have come to drive the project. “The things we do feel private, even though we both know the camera is there,” he says.
Tam's collaborators are quirkily charismatic, like the infectiously confident middle-aged woman who wrapped herself up with him in saran wrap or Jeffrey, the gangly itinerant house cleaner who helped him invent ritualistic dance moves. “The people who work out are sort of eccentric in their own way. It's a self-selecting process.”
He no longer has a set agenda when he initiates an encounter. “I don't want it to become like a gimmick,” Tam says. “Whenever I feel like I'm ready, I'll start a new one.” The looser the process becomes, the more negotiating, editing and emotional investment each video involves.
He's begun to work with the same person multiple times, using absurd degrees of closeness as starting points — most recently, he and a Craigslist collaborator started their interaction by changing into identical outfits — and developing relationships from there. “The ends of the videos are not about creating intimacy. That's the beginning. Intimacy is the material I manipulate.”