Filmed at Touché, Chicago’s oldest leather bar, Frédéric Moffet’s The Faithful projects portraits of men on facing walls, as if they’re cruising each other from opposite sides of a virtual bar. The two-channel, looped installation will be featured in the Garden Terrace Room on June 22 as the Walker’s Total Pride event. A Chicago-based filmmaker and artist, Moffet talks with Bentson Archivist/ Programmer Ruth Hodgins about the filming of The Faithful, leather bars, and the culture of cruising.
Ruth Hodgins: Fred, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your video installation. The Faithful portrays cruising in a leather bar in Chicago. Can you discuss the origins of this project and the culture around cruising?
Frédéric Moffet: By 2010, when I started working on The Faithful, it was clear that cruising culture had completely transformed. We no longer needed to go to bars to hook up. We could simply look at our phones. Some people declared the death of gay bars, but of course that didn’t happen. Some bars closed, new ones opened, and some older bars became fashionable again. Right now in Chicago there is a new generation of queer folks raised on Grindr and Scruff who love to frequent some of the city’s older bars like The Anvil and Touché (where we shot The Faithful). Parties, like Men’s Room and Femme’s Room, truly channel the energy of gay liberation. There’s nothing like the rush of meeting someone on a dance floor or in a dark room and feeling a connection. You can still look at your phone afterward to see if you like their profile and exchange pictures. It is not an either/or proposition.
Oli Rodriguez is looking at his phone at the beginning of his “portrait” in The Faithful. It is a very important moment of the piece for me.
Hodgins: Your choice of title is interesting. I’d consider your focus to be on openness and promiscuity within gay culture; the word “faithful” seems like the antithesis of what’s happening.
Moffet: I love the contradiction in the title. The project is about cruising culture and promiscuity. Everyone is flirting with everyone else. Each time the installation loops, the person leaning against the pool table is flirting with a different partner sitting in front of the mural. When you add the viewer in the gallery, the situation can become a triangle or another arrangement.
The project is definitely not about fidelity in a monogamous relationship, it’s not about gay marriage. It is about being faithful to a way of life: the project is contemporary but deeply rooted in the philosophy of the early gay liberation. Promiscuity enables different types of relationship and community, something that Michel Foucault articulates so eloquently in Friendship as a Way of Life.
The funny thing is that right after completing this project I fell in love, and I have been in a monogamous relationship ever since. I guess life doesn’t always imitate art.
Hodgins: Can you tell us about working with the actors and how you communicated the project to them? Did you direct them closely, especially in terms of their positioning or clothing? Or were the decisions predominantly led by the people and culture already part of Touché? I guess I’m interested to know how Faithful the work is to the real experience?
Moffet: I really wanted to shoot the project at Touché. It is Chicago’s oldest leather bar, established in 1977. It changed location once, yet maintained the aesthetic of the era. However, the project is not a documentary. I didn’t just set up a camera in the bar and shot with the regulars. I had specific ideas that I wanted to work out with this project.
The Faithful creates a utopian space. Too often gay bars are segregated, organized around theme nights for different clientele: bear, twink, leather, trans, Latino nights… In The Faithful, people of different ages, body types and ethnicities come together to lust after each other. The actors were carefully selected from different communities that I frequent: the art world, the gym, the bars, the Internet. They were all dressed in their own clothes. My directions were minimal: People had to look at the camera as if it was someone they wanted to have sex with. There were no rehearsals, no retake. Some men were expert at this game; others were really awkward, which is a true reflection of what happens in bars. In reality my friend, filmmaker Shellie Fleming, who, sadly, passed away a few years ago, was behind the camera and became the object of all their lustful gazing. Her presence in this project is incredibly meaningful to me.
Hodgins: Power, desire, queer identity, confrontation, lust, longing, awkward, intensity are all words I think about when I experience this work. What other themes or language do you use to identify this project?
Moffet: I am interested in resilience. I get excited when things that should become obsolete somehow manage to survive. It is one of the reasons why I wanted to create a project about cruising bars. The project is also an homage to the medium of 16mm film. For years people have been mourning the death of film. I was recently at the European Media Art Festival and some of the most interesting projects were shot on celluloid. Shooting this project on 16mm was very important to me. I do not think this particular project would have worked if it were shot on 4k. The grainy look of the image refers to the aesthetic of early underground and pornographic films. The duration of each performance is constrained by the length of a 100-foot roll of film. The flares at the beginning and end of each roll create an emotionally charged transition that highlights the ephemeral nature of the situation. I am also obsessed with ephemerality. Nothing is permanent. It is a very hard reality to accept.
Hodgins: Do you have any other projects you’re working on at the moment? What do we have to look forward to?
Moffet: I just finished a new short film entitled Fever Freaks. I painstakingly manipulated individual frames from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1974 film Arabian Nights to illustrate a short passage from William S. Burroughs’s 1981 novel Cities of the Red Nights. It’s about a plague that transforms fear into sexual frenzies and back again into fear and shame. It is a very intense film. Once again the project has a very strong 1970s feel to it. Coming of age in the late Eighties at the apex of the AIDS crisis was a defining moment for me.
From a very early age, desire, disease, and death became deeply interconnected in my head and led to a lot of repression and revolt. I have always longed the period right before the pandemic. The film is not about AIDS, but the specter of the virus is present throughout. This project also allowed me to collaborate for the first time with a composer on an original soundtrack. It was wonderful working with multitalented Chicago-based jazz musician Ben Lamar Gay. The music is very psychedelic. I love it.