The Boy Mechanic
"The Boy Mechanic" is an ongoing project that will document the history of lesbian bars in cities and towns across the United States and Europe. Loss of architecture and the frailties of public memories have often been the motivation for photographic documentation of changing urban spaces; focusing on the lesbian bar reveals how sexuality and sexual identity inform larger narratives about public identity and social space. It is my hope that the photographs, video, and maps of The Boy Mechanic will document and give authority to narrations of lesbian bar life, so often anonymous or mute, and now waning. I began the research in 1996 in San Diego and completed "The Boy Mechanic/San Diego" in 2004, "The Boy Mechanic/Cologne" (Germany) in 2006 and I began working on Los Angeles in 2005. Each city's character influences both the direction and methodology of the research and the type of art objects that I produce and how they are exhibited and distributed. The Boy Mechanic/Los Angeles website is a means for disseminating the material gathered quickly and to a wider audience than the time and space boundaries of an exhibition context and it will also function as a research tool for networking with those who can contribute their knowledge to the writing of this anecdotal history.
The Boy Mechanic was commissioned in 1996 by the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego for the exhibition “Re: Public; Listening to San Diego." For this initial phase of the project I conducted 30 hours of videotaped interviews with San Diego lesbian bar patrons who took me to current and former sites of the bars in that town. The result was a 30-minute video about the history of lesbian bars in San Diego.
In 2001 I was invited to show a work in the exhibition “ Video as a Female Terrain”, which was part of the annual internationally acclaimed cultural arts event the Steirischer Herbst, at the Landesmusuem Joanneum, in Graz, Austria. For this context I re-edited and designed the ongoing project The Boy Mechanic as a video installation.
The Boy Mechanic as seen in Graz was a three-channel video projection installation that documents the history of the appearance and disappearance of lesbian bars in San Diego, California. As one of my local informants narrates her tour of bar sites of the past she says, Oh god, you know what, I don’t know where it was. [It has] been so built up here . . . It’s gone. Not even a trace. I think they must have torn down the building, because it was something else before it was a lesbian bar. I don’t even think there is a trace of it.” The video installation documents these former sites and turns its attention to the bar scene of the present and portrays the success of two, seven-day-a-week bars, The Flame and Club Bombay. The juxtaposition of the past bar life with the thriving current scene in San Diego indicates the fragility, rather than the stability, of the latter.
Two simultaneous synchronized video projections juxtapose the exterior facades with the interior architecture’s sociology. The 10 minute interior/exterior loops alternate sound tracks and are bracketed by the third moving video of an interview with a former participant in the bar scene of the 1970’s. Speaking from her home office, in a one-minute interview, Diane Germaine describes how lesbians at the time felt about the politics of bar life. She concludes,“… that was one of our favorite things to say, 'Well, we can go somewhere. And make our space in somebody else’s space – public space and make it our space.' And all that…it was all about space. It was cool.” The installation includes high bar stools, several high bar tables, and a bar so that while watching the projections, viewers can sit on the stools and reference the experience a bar.
In 2002 I returned to San Diego and began producing an archive of large format photographs of the facades of current and former sites of lesbian bars. In November 2002 The Boy Mechanic was reconfigured for the exhibition “Hausordnungen” at the Stadthaus Ulm. For the installation in Ulm, I re-edited the video using a split screen to produce a partial effect like the multiple projections in a single channel piece, and I exhibited the large-scale photographs of bar facades from San Diego. In 2004 I again exhibited the large scale photos of the facades with the single channel video in a solo show at plattform in Berlin. For the plattform exhibition I published a set of ten postcards to memorialize and distribute the history of these bars. Postcards generally commemorate landmarks and shore up faulty public memory. In this case the printed traces of San Diego were distributed from the location of Berlin.
In 2004-2005 as a recipient of the City Of Los Angeles Fellowship, I began the research for the Los Angeles Edition. The vast geography and dense web of highways in Los Angeles demanded a different approach to both the research and the resulting exhibition. In 2005 COLA exhibited two large scale framed color photographs, a chalk board wall sized drawing of a map of Los Angeles annotated with bar site snapshots and anecdotal text, and a ten minute video loop of drive-by footage of the located bar sites. In 2006 I installed The Boy Mechanic/Los Angeles and The Boy Mechanic/San Diego together for the first time in the exhibition "Warum Etwas Zeigen, Was Man Sehen Kann?" at Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany. I am currently continuing to produce both photographs of bar sites in the Los Angeles area and video interviews.
Additionally, I was invited to extend my research to include the history of lesbian bars in Cologne, Germany for the exhibition "The Eight Square: Gender, Life and Desire in the Arts since 1960" at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, 2006. For The Boy Mechanic/Cologne I produced a two sided poster which documented the sites of 17 former bars and the 3 current lesbian bars both photographically and with narrative descriptions of my encounters with both current owners and past patrons of those places.