An Art Show on 'Queer Geographies' and the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot

Lasse Lau rehearsing for his performance with Flo Maak for the opening of Technologies of the Kitchen on February 3.  (Photo: Flo Maak)

Danish artist Lasse Lau’s first sexual encounters were in H.C. Ørsted public park in his hometown of Copenhagen, at the age of sixteen. After the sun set and typical parkgoers had gone home, Lau and other queer men would cruise around and hook up behind bushes.

It’s a ritual practiced in city parks all over the world. (In San Francisco, for instance, Buena Vista Park has historically been a cruising hotspot.) For people like teenage Lau, without the ability to be out about his sexuality at home or the money to rent private space, there is often only one option: to seek out a sense of privacy in public.

But after the Copenhagen city council ordered the park’s bushes to be removed, in what Lau saw as a direct attack on the local queer community’s “possibilities for self-realization in public space,” Lau began to consider how queer communities can deliberately create open spaces for themselves rather than be sequestered to the places that will have them. “How can we become our own architects?” he asked himself.

From there, Lau began his artistic practice creating installations and exploring “queer geographies” all over the world, eventually bringing him to Oakland’s Pro Arts gallery, where he's currently in residence alongside German artist and serial collaborator Flo Maak. Their work will culminate in a show entitled Technologies of the Kitchen (Feb. 3–23), partly inspired by San Francisco’s 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot -- one of the first recorded riots of trans individuals in the United States.

Lasse Lau's poster for Privacy Could Only Be Had in the Public.
Lasse Lau's poster for 'Privacy Could Only Be Had in the Public.' (Lasse Lau)

But first: In response to the deforesting of Ørsted Park, Lau created Privacy Can Only Be Had in the Public in 2001, a guerrilla installation in a bunker in the park. He filled the bunker with potted bushes and projected images of the park’s former greenery onto a disco ball, creating a romanticized, public, cruising-friendly discotheque. The installation would open every night for visitors to enjoy however they please.

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Since, Lau has organized guerrilla bush plantings and created seed packets to facilitate others. He has also led Queer Geographies workshops (with Maak as a participant and documentarian) in Copenhagen, Beirut and Tijuana -- in which local participants collectively map unsanctioned queer spaces, discuss how the city’s infrastructure defines queer social culture and formulate art pieces around those ideas. In 2014, Lau produced Queer Geographies, an anthology of those and other art pieces, featuring 53 contributors, including Maak. The publication will be available at Pro Arts throughout the duo's residency and exhibition.

A member of the Queer Geographies workshop exploring queer spaces in Copehagen in 2006.
A member of the Queer Geographies workshop exploring queer spaces in Copehagen in 2006. (Flo Maak)

While Lau and Maak's past explorations have led them to bath houses, abandoned industrial buildings, rooftops and elsewhere, their current work pivots to investigate how queerness manifests in interior spaces. At the GLBT Historical Society archives in San Francisco, the pair has been burrowing into the city's rich history of queer culture, finding inspiration in such events as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966.

Gene Compton’s restaurant, formerly in the Tenderloin District, was one of the few gathering places for trans San Franciscans in the early '60s. It was open late, the coffee was cheap, and the lighting was flattering enough. But one hot August night in 1966, the police unfairly raided the restaurant one too many times. When one policeman grabbed a drag queen, she threw her hot coffee in his face. Then, furniture began to fly, a cop car got destroyed, and the cafeterias huge glass windows were shattered. That was three years before the Stonewall riots.

A night at Compton's Cafeteria.
A night at Compton's Cafeteria. (Henry Leleu, Courtesy GLBT Historical Society)

The story fascinates Lau and Maak, in part because it expands on their recent work reframing “the kitchen as a place where bodies are made -- not only in the sense of nourishing, but of triggering and regulating desires,” in Maak’s words.

The interest began with their realization that John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of Corn Flakes, also designed anti-masturbation and chastity belts. In Technologies of the Kitchen, they use sculpture and installation to evoke such historical narratives and highlight how interior spaces such as kitchens — or cafeterias — ultimately become the places where public policies are enacted.

"The body on the street is a very particular body... it turns up in a very male discourse," Lau says. "We're interested in [the idea that] maybe radical activity today is a much more domestic thing than it used to be."

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