Over the course of 30 years, William E. Jones has produced a genre-defying body of work that includes films, videos, photographs, and texts. He alternately employs research, critique, autobiography, fiction, and appropriation to offer bracing-and often controversial-reassessments of the historical record. (1998) is an important video from a moment in Joness career when he was beginning to leave behind the world of independent documentary cinema for a more free-wheeling practice that existed-and continues to exist-at the margins between several disciplines. It is comprised entirely of footage from gay adult videos made in Eastern Europe in the first years after the arrival of capitalism. In this interview with Stuart Krimko, the gallerys Research and Editorial Director, Jones discusses the videos genesis, historical background, and continued relevance.
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch sexualized scenes of domination and submission in his novel
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Lets start with the basics. Where did the material that makes up The Fall of Communism… originate, and how did it fall into your hands?
In the mid-1990s, I worked in a video store and saw the release of a wave of gay adult videos shot in Eastern Europe. They were products of a crude imperialist enterprise: cheap and nasty looking, with an atmosphere of coercion and cultural misunderstanding pervading them. Customers adored these videos, and expressed their breathless admiration whenever given the chance. The moment I saw the cover of Men of the Balkans, the first gay porn film shot in Bulgaria, I knew I had found a subject for a video. With little money or leisure time, I couldnt travel to Eastern Europe to make a documentary; instead, I examined the internal evidence of the videos themselves. I found more than enough to inspire a work.
Sex tourism generally develops when white people from rich countries have the opportunity to fuck the people of the Third World
It almost never involves sex with poor white people. There have been two major exceptions: Germany between 1919 and 1933, and Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. In the first instance, this departure from the norm was a prelude to fascism. In the second instance, its still an open question, and subject to national or regional variations. The Czech Republic has sustained a thriving sex economy for decades and not descended into fascism; but political outcomes in Hungary, Russia, and most recently, Poland, have not been hopeful.
Im not proposing that the development of a sex industry simply brings fascism into being. Its more a case of grotesque and cruel economic mismanagement causing unemployment, hyperinflation, and depression. Still, I was amazed to see signs of an epochal social transformation unintentionally documented in the tapes available for rent at my neighborhood video store. When I made The Fall of Communism…, such material had not yet been studied seriously. Gay porn was considered beneath scholars attention, but in its crudeness, I found it more appropriate as an object of historical analysis than masterpieces of film art, with all their insinuating rhetoric and idiosyncrasies of personal expression.
You make interesting use of many images that happen “around” the actual sex scenes: establishing shots, titles, and of course the screen tests all reveal important information about how market forces in the West are coming up against the economic situation in the East. The screen tests especially, which account for half the works duration, have particular power, as the director pokes and prods the young men. These scenes seem to have an allegorical feel to them, one that describes how two different economic systems, at two different points in their global trajectories, are coming into contact with one another.
In the socialist East, the elites had political power, but money was insignificant, in stark contrast with the capitalist West, where everyone knows that money buys power and influence. I think the boys in The Fall of Communism… had to learn this lesson, and they only fully understood it when they appeared in a porn video. All of the material I used came from the period after the initial euphoria following the fall of communism had worn off. By the mid-1990s, the centrally planned economies that had suddenly converted to capitalism were in terrible shape. At the most desperate moment, old people were forced to sell piles of family heirlooms on the street to make ends meet; the only thing young people had to sell was access to their bodies. Someone from the West could literally enslave naive youths, if not permanently, then at least for the duration of a videos production, and for as little as fifty US dollars.
These power relations seemed startling and new at the time, but they may have been just the latest instance of profound historical patterns. The Nazis who invaded the East during World War II considered the ethnic groups native to the region to be subhuman and fit for slavery. The ancestors of these people had emerged from serfdom about a century prior to the occupation. Before then, traditional aristocrats considered them as only so much chattel. Venus in Furs (1870), and its no surprise that he was a nobleman from the Galician hinterlands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.