Intimacy and Data Protection The Grey Area of Sexuality

Dries Verhoeven “Wanna Play? Liebe in Zeiten von Grindr”, Hebbel am Ufer (HAU)
Dries Verhoeven “Wanna Play? Liebe in Zeiten von Grindr”, Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) | Photo (detail): Sascha Weidner

Homosexuality appears to be an almost conflict-free matter in the social order of the Federal Republic of Germany. Recognised as a way of life under civil law, hardly anything is said about sexual orientation anymore. Yet sexuality itself remains a taboo. If the subject is brought up in public, it provokes scandals.

It was almost exactly ten years ago. In 2004, Berlin choreographer Felix Ruckert had organised an event lasting several days called xplore which dealt with sexual practices of all kinds. Group experiences, optimised pleasure and the general public were brought together in a way that went beyond the performing arts’ traditional framework. This was not only risqué on account of the subject matter – anyone who knows Felix Ruckert is also aware of his preoccupation with bondage and sadomasochism – but particularly also because the event was financed by the public purse. Ruckert had been granted so-called basic funding from the Berlin Senate. When the press found out, it was not only certain print media that were alarmed, but also the donor. The city’s parliament demanded explanations, and the author of these lines, then a member of the jury that had allocated the funding, had to prepare a written defence. In the end, Ruckert did not have to repay the subsidies, but he was called upon to refrain from holding such events in the future. Yet he claimed that xplore was his best artistic work to date.

From “gay” to “queer”

Since that incident, there is no doubt that reality has moved in Ruckert’s direction. The ongoing pornographisation of society goes hand in hand with the media presentation of all kinds of sexual practices. In 2014, it no longer seems to be a matter of any importance whether something is homosexual, heterosexual, transsexual or metrosexual. The younger generation is hardly guided by reference to such attributes anymore. Who is involved with whom in what relationships of desire no longer serves to create identity. “Queer” is the term used for this non-conformist variant of social sexuality.

Yet in spite of all this liberalism, one prohibition remains entirely intact: talking about preferences. Sexual orientation may have become the subject of casual after-dinner conversations, but sexuality remains subject to an unwritten rule of silence. This paradox emerged in October 2014 in Germany’s frivolous capital Berlin, of all places. Wanna Play. Love in Times of Grindr was a theatre project by Netherlands artist Dries Verhoeven, carried out at the invitation of Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) theatre. It aimed to address precisely the transfer of public recognition to the invisible practice of homosexuality. Verhoeven contacted men through a chat portal and got them involved in a chat about intimacy and closeness. The twist about Wanna Play was that Verhoeven went public with these conversations. He himself was in a glass trailer and could be gaped at, and exchanges on the chat screens were projected onto giant screens, suddenly enabling uninvolved passers-by to witness the chats, some of which were quite explicit.

Such publicity was unbearable, however, particularly for those involved. There were growing protests after one of the chat partners felt recognised and exposed. In the end, the Wanna Play project had to be discontinued and discussed in hurriedly convened round-table discussions. The interplay of de facto anonymity and urbanely exhibited acceptance had reached its limits.

Stages of intimacy

Incidentally, the Internet service which was used as part of this project also offers its members a special service. The precise location of the user or his computer, identified by GPS, is communicated to the chat partners. This is something that is accepted without question in this context; under other circumstances, permanent surveillance and - if you will allow a cheap pun - the shameless exploitation of location data would lead to civil protest. Oddly, however, data protection appears uninteresting when intimate needs are at stake. Unless that intimacy is made public.

Singaporean performance artist Daniel Kok carried out a similar project in Berlin a few years ago, but without any secretiveness. He asked forty men for a rendezvous through a similar online dating agency, found out about their sexual wishes and then gave them a gift in the form of a dance. The ensuing stage project comprised a mega-rendezvous that brought together all those network partners whose dance gifts the artist had collected and collaged into a performance. The Gay Romeo is still touring successfully.

Public figures today no longer have to resign if they indulge in a homosexual lifestyle, but they do if they are kinky, as the British say, that is to say, if their preferences become known. That means sexuality may no longer be a direct factor for brutalisation. However, the conflict-fraught nexus of secrecy, shame and transgression remains as much an issue as ever, even in the theatre.