“Circus of Books” | 16th March | NY

Curated by David Fierman and Rachel Mason

Wilder Alison, Ron Athey, Adam Baran, Bengala, Erik Bergrin, Michael Bilsborough, Raynes Birkbeck, Seth Bogart, Chris Bogia, Kathe Burkhart, Deric Carner, Chivas Clem, Scott Covert, Vaginal Davis, Anne Doran, Thomas Dozol, Zackary Drucker, Ruben Esparza, Tom of Finland, Karen Finley, Benjamin Fredrickson, ektor garcia, Mariah Garnett, Mark Golamco, Jeff Grant, Michelle Handelman, Charles Hovland, Scott Hug, David Hurles, Stephen Irwin, William E. Jones, Wayne Koestenbaum, Mike Kuchar, Bruce LaBruce, Lucas Michael, Billy Miller, Bob Mizer, David Mramor, Narcissister, Dominic Nurre, Mel Ottenberg, Jack Pierson, Breyer P-Orridge, Pre-Echo Press, Fay Ray, Mariah Robertson, Dean Sameshima, Stuart Sandford, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Margie Schnibbe, Michael Stipe, Chris E. Vargas, Mark Verabioff, Jan Wandrag, Karlheinz Weinberger, Jimmy Wright, Dorian Wood

Growing up, I always assumed every store had an over 18 section. It was only when I got older that I realized my parents were in the business of hardcore gay porn. This was a completely strange thing for me, because this was not the world I knew to be of my parents; straight-laced, boring, and in my Mom’s case, religious. The world of sexual deviants, gender nonconforming transgressives and weirdos, that was my world, not theirs. And yet, it took me leaving Los Angeles for over a decade to fully comprehend what a massive role their two Circus of Books stores served for the community. It took making a documentary film to realize that they had nurtured a second family to the family they had at home. They had carved out their own special place as trusted shop owners who never judged anyone who showed up in their surreptitious aisles, even as the rest of the world cast down condemnation, to say nothing of other parents at our school. As the store was closing last week, a Vietnam Veteran walked through the doors and stood, unmoving in front of the register. My Mom had protested against Vietnam, and she proceeded to tell him how terrible the Vietnam war was, and he looked at her and said, ‘Thank you. This store is part of my history, and some of the best years of my life happened here.’
Rachel Mason, Director and Producer, Circus of Books (2019)

TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Untitled (Preparatory Drawing), 1977, Graphite on paper, 16 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches (48.7 x 36 cm), Framed: 21 7/8 x 17 1/8 x 1 1/2 inches (55.6 x 43.5 x 3.8 cm)

One of the aspects of the long march towards social liberation that has been shamelessly ignored is the role of commercial establishments and commodity culture in the development of communal identity. Queer people first had to become not just a demographic, but a recognized market in order to solidify as a community. Such establishments as bars, bookstores and porno purveyors helped catalyze community, build social relationships and create a common culture. Circus of Books was one of the leading outposts in LA’s developing queer commercial network, more influential than many other kinds of organizations in catering to powerful sexual urges. In a full accounting of the birth of queer community, the foundational role of Circus of Books and places like it won’t be ignored any longer. The genius of homophobia was enforced social isolation, promoting the feeling that there was something wrong with you. Whatever else Circus was, it was place of community, and as such a powerful weapon against this isolation. At an historical moment when a social revolution was experienced through a sexual revolution, only something as unyielding as plague could interrupt what seemed the inevitable triumph of eros.
Jonathan D. Katz, Director of Visual Studies Doctoral Program, Department of Art University at Buffalo

Circus of Books functioned as visible neighborhood anchors in Silver Lake and West Hollywood, and as queer public spaces for decades. Best known for selling gay pornography, these stores facilitated not only the circulation of queer media—print and audiovisual—but also created spaces for exploring one’s own sexuality and identity and for potential interpersonal encounters. On the one hand, it must be reclaimed that pornography has been the most pervasive form of representation for gay men and was even mainstream during the formative period of gay liberation (when sexual expression was considered central to a conception of gay politics). On the other hand, it must also be remembered that before the world wide web, pornography was primarily accessed and often experienced in public, communal spaces. Whereas the former has largely been overlooked, the latter may have been forgotten. Circus of Books was a significant site for these ephemeral experiences of queer (predominantly male) sexuality. Although considerable attention has been given to this histories of adult media spaces in New York’s Times Square, comparable public spaces in California—exemplified by Circus of Books—have been largely overlooked; yet, because they were longtime stand-alone businesses rather than mere iterations of similar businesses clustered in vice districts, they actually played a larger role in shaping their local communities and cultures.
Lucas Hilderbrand, Associate Professor, Film and Media Studies University of California, Irvine


Opening reception 6-9p

On view through 6th May

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