A few weeks ago, I went to two locally organized events by Toronto-based artist Peter Kingstone through Latitude 53 and HIV Edmonton. As a self-taught artist currently touring his single-channel video installation, 100 Stories About My Grandmother, Kingstone also screened a short independent work, “The Adventures of Strongman and Quickboy,” for a community viewing and post-screening discussion.
Wanting to tell stories not normally seen in popular media, Kingstone’s representation of sex-trade workers upsets mainstream constructions of prostitutes as often-disenfranchised, homeless drug addicts from shattered homes. Though it could be argued that this stereotype has roots pulled from reality, it cannot be denied that this construction has been massively popularized to maintain and uphold a moral standpoint that perpetuates prostitution as morally depraved and holds that prostitutes must by default be inferior. By not even engaging in the morality of the situation that automatically creates a “good” versus “evil” scenario, Kingstone instead represents male sex trade workers from a humanist point of view, and in so doing successfully tells a story about people rather than judgments.
Image credit: Still from 100 Stories About My Grandmother, Peter Kingstone, 2008
100 Stories About My Grandmother features 100 male prostitutes from Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, Miami and London sharing a first-person narrative about their grandmother. Each story runs for several minutes in an unedited, unscripted stationary shot with the participants ranging from 17 to 64 years of age.
At times wavering between a confessional monologue and a long-forgotten anecdote, the affect on the viewers is the experience of a pure and profoundly sincere moment of human intimacy. Presenting the 100 stories through three different living room sets reminiscent of one’s grandmother’s house, we are made privy to these stories broadcasting from television sets that would never otherwise offer these perspectives.
Media constructions often dehumanize prostitutes (or any group that is deemed morally inferior), framing them as victims, often of violent crimes, and thus upholding a moral justification of why they must be controlled and saved. Instead of beginning from a position of defense and being judged, Kingstone starts with a narrative about relating to his own grandmother, who was a sex trade worker and who he never got to know. Soliciting a collective memory that reveals horrors and comedies from our everyday relations, the work stands as a communal archive for storytelling.
Similarly, in “The Adventures of Strongman and Quickboy”—which features extended scenes of explicit sex between various assemblages of men—Kingstone presented the film as a community viewing to encourage discussion rather than voyeurism. Topical issues of age, disease and relationships converged without ever dramatizing or exploiting itself into clichés. The character of Strongman has to take daily meds, but the words “HIV” and “AIDS” are never uttered; the character of Quickboy is obsessed with a constructed pop culture that has not included him, but gay exclusion is never dwelled upon.
Serendipitously, on the same day of Kingstone’s opening for 100 Stories About My Grandmother, the Edmonton Sun newspaper published an article entitled “A Twisted Homosexual World.” Appearing by pure coincidence, Mindelle Jacob’s column featured an interview with a Calgary-based psychology professor sharing his opinion about the twisted behavior of “hedonistic psychopaths” who either willingly give or seek out the HIV virus. Using internet profiles as its reported research and blatantly constructing these men as monsters, the article was crude and oblivious in a most disappointing vein, but through its sole manifestation into our consciousness, we are at least reminded that there will always be at least two sides to every story.
- A.F. Edmonton
*First published in Vue Weekly February 5 - 11, 2009