Erotic Resistance

Erika Larsson and Louise Wolthers
There were two sitting, cheek to cheek, with arms tenderly wrapped around the tiny waist.
There another leaned his head tenderly against his neighbour’s chest.
There was another pair that sat so tight, close to each other.

In 1924 journalist Barthold Lundén published an article in the magazine VIDI, describing how he crashes a private party outside Gothenburg. The party was arranged by the two Karlsson brothers and their group of friends, who Lundén derogatively labels as a “homosexual plague hearth”. In the article, he relay detailed glimpses of what he sees as he enters the home. Scenes of the party are described in an affective language that is saturated with both disgust and fascination.  Some years later, in 1937, this same group of friends, who came to be known as Kretsen (the circle) were subjected to a criminal investigation.

Almost a century later, Conny Karlsson Lundgren visually reappropriates some of the details from Lundén’s descriptions in three still life photographs: a pearl necklace, a sailor cap, and prunes with whipped cream. In the beautiful black and white images, the objects are held or being presented by the artist’s hand gently gesturing to them as evidence. Formally, the still-life photographs refer to the modernist aesthetics seen in the new advertisement photography of the 1920s as well as the more artistic photographic experiments of the time. They also refer to the method of the period’s police photography where often a hand would be pointing to details of evidence, to what was of importance in the image. 

The three photographs are part of the installation Prologue (The Gothenburg Affair) (2021) where Lunden’s article is multiplied and hung as wallpaper. As the reproductions are 1:1 in scale, the audience has to get close in order to read the words that are derogatory but at the same time contain sensual depictions of what he sees at the party. Two of the framed black-and-white photographs are mounted on the wallpaper and one is laying on a podium. Finally, a red light bulb blinking in 120 bpm is hung in front of the wallpaper, a references to the private party and the pulse beating in an excited and aroused body.   

Prologue is the first half of the multifaceted two-part installation and performative work, The Gothenburg Affair (Göteborgsaffären) (2021) in which Conny Karlsson Lundgren departs from the events around the exposure and the criminal investigation of some of the men who belonged to the circle. In the investigation, the police mapped out the typologies, actions and relationships of this loosely connected group. As homosexuality was criminalized, they were eventually prosecuted in a high-profile trial, where some were sentenced to prison while others were admitted to psychiatric treatment. 

        Touching Photographs

By the 1920’s, photography had become one of the most important and indispensable tools for criminology, which advanced as an interdisciplinary science during the interwar period. Albeit photography’s alleged objectivity, crime scene photography was both performative and coded, exemplified in the kind of images that include a representative of the police pointing to a specific detail and directing the gaze of the viewer. In mimicking this gesture of the index finger, Karlsson Lundgren’s photographs transforms the piercing gaze of both Lundén and the police into something erotic and pleasurable.This sensuousness can be detected in the party as read between the lines of Lundén’s article, but also in the words of the journalist himself. Even as Lundén describes his aim to impose fear and stop the group from wanting “to carry on in such a cheeky manner, or demonstrate their despicable urges too ostentatiously and openly,” it seems that he cannot help but to reveal a certain fascination with the intimacy and enjoyment between the men. 

In one of Karlsson Lundgren’s still-life photographs, two fingers hold up a pearl necklace with the ‘feminizing’ gesture of a tilted wrist. This gesture has a long history in stereotypical representations of gay men considered ‘effeminate’, which Karlsson Lundgren has addressed in an older work called Limp Wrist (Becoming) (2012) – a photo series consisting of 40 portraits of the artist’s friends manifested only through their hand gestures. This earlier work already hints at the strategy of exploring, reclaiming, and opening up the sensuous potential of characteristics that have been used in stigmatizing typologizations of sexual minorities.  

The perception of photography as a purely optic phenomenon—and therefore more trustworthy in terms of evidence—increased throughout the twentieth century. In the last decades, however, artists and theorists have been challenging this perception and turning their attention toward the ways in which photographs engage all our senses, and the inseparability of touch and vision in particular. The three still-lifes in Prologue (The Gothenburg Affair) make full use of photography’s ability to produce a finer grain rendition of details and texture: the moistness of the prunes, the softness of the cream and the smoothness of the pearls. Describing a photographic experience in terms of texture is not a matter of translating a visual experience into a tactile one, but rather an expression of the inevitable synestheticity of photographic experience. As such, the visual perception of the smoothness of the pearls is also a feeling at one’s fingertips, and the abstract patterns of the prunes and their sauce become the conduit of an olfactory sensation. By referencing the optics of crime photography, at the same time as emphasizing the medium’s haptic allure, Karlsson Lundgren’s still lifes unsettles the divide between the haptic and the optic. The modernist aesthetics is put to use with a result that is ostentatiously and openly sensual, at the same time as it mocks the idea of how criminological evidence should be recorded. In a cheeky manner, to paraphrase Lundén, the photographs bring out both the covert and overt sensuality in the depictions of the party as well as the evidence of the future investigation, such as the presence of erotic literature in the second, performative part of The Gothenburg Affair.

        Pain and Pleasure

A complex scenography built in light, unpainted wood forms the setting of the second part of Conny Karlsson Lundgren’s We Feel a Desire for Caresses by Men (The Gothenburg Affair). The scenography is regularly activated by a performance. It is composed of a chair with measuring device used by the police for id-photography, a speaker podium with written fragments from the forensic psychiatric protocols, four small tables displaying an IQ test, a spread of the book Physique and Character by Ernst Kretschmer, a selection of erotic photographs from a collection found in the home of one of the men which was used to identify several of the suspects, and a vinyl record player. On the wall is mounted a still life photograph of a pile of books—literature mentioned by the accused men and given the role of evidence in the investigation. Another red, pulsating light bulb hangs from the ceiling, which is the only element that appears in both the Prologue and We Feel a Desire for Caresses by Men. In the context of the scenography, the light bulb can be associated with the photographic darkroom, thus pointing to the multiple roles of photography in the work: from the private pleasure of looking at erotic imagery to the forced portraiture by the police.

With a gender queer appearance, the performer connect the physical elements of the installation, various voices and discourses—from accused to persecutor, from personal accounts to scientific reports—through a monologue and a choreography. The performer is dressed in military boxer style underwear, a silky, sleeveless top, silk socks covered by men’s socks, white sneakers, and a pearl necklace. With a playful, enticing and often flirtatious choreography, they take over the space through slow gestures, poses and dance moves inspired by the erotic photographs and the interrogation accounts. The monologue weaves together fragments of the interrogations with the stating of names, occupations, sexual encounters with men and testimonials of what happened at the party. In this way, the performer embodies the collective of the men known by their female chosen names—Rosa, Josefin and Olivia—all of who “feel a desire for caresses by men”. Toward the end, the performer reads from the forensic psychiatric protocols and quotes the court decisions. Before leaving the room, the they starts the record player and dances to a newly produced remix by the duo [inaudible] of a couplet, Jazzgossen (The Jazz boy) originally from 1922 by the musician and director Karl Gerhard. 

In the public archives, the photographs are presented together with descriptions of the suspects’ physical state at the time of the interrogation. Karlsson Lundgren’s works do not include the identificatory photographs but from the speaker’s podium, the performer cites descriptions of the suspects in sentences such as: “He is of standard height, lean and asthenic. He is quite narrow over the shoulders with a marked waist and is strikingly wide over the hips. The position of the legs is male. The distribution of subcutaneous fat shows no female features. The skin is very sweaty. The hair is unusually abundant and of a distinctly masculine type, with compact, cohesive hair from the chest down over the abdomen and genitals. The testicles are smaller than average and of soft, loose texture.”

German psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer’s physiognomic classification system of body types, represented in installation of The Gothenburg Affair, was highly influential in the young science of criminology as it developed in Sweden during the interwar years. The Kretschmerian body types (the asthenic, the athletic, the pyknic, and the dysplastic type) were associated with specific personality traits, of which some were prone to non-normative sexual behavior, psychiatric disturbances and potentially criminal behavior. The medical forensic reports would accentuate “feminine” appearances in allegedly gay men through subjective descriptions of sensitive, soft, and sensual facial features. In other words, homosexuality would be identified by the purely visual medical-forensic diagnostics, which thus served as evidence in the criminalization of homosexuality. 

The performer in the second part of Karlsson Lundgren’s Gothenburg Affair brings life to the supposedly factual methods used and evidence found in the investigation by physically and affectively engaging with it. Rather than detached technical or scientific tools, they reveal them to be the product of a particular historical and ideological context. It relates to the ways in which the photographs in Prologue dismantle the constructed divide between the haptic and the optic: the performance brings an embodied understanding to the categorizations, the ideology, and the misconceptions that underpin the criminology and science of the time.

         Querying/Queering Archives

The restaging of historical still photographs as a means to queer the archive is at the core in several of Karlsson Lundgren’s works. An early example is the video piece I Am Other (Candy & Me) (2007–2008), made in collaboration with writer and trans-activist Andy Candy and based on the 1974 iconic photograph of Candy Darling by Peter Hujar entitled Candy on her Deathbed. Hujar’s portrait fixates the figure of the transwoman as a lonely, victimized and sad figure, but in Karlsson Lundgren’s  and Andy Candy’s video, the person on the bed does not only create an affective link with Candy Darling across time, but also transforms her into an empowered position in the present. As art historian Mathias Danbolt describes the work in his essay, with the poignant title Touching History: “Claiming that the only way of dismantling an image is to first ‘recognize that it exists’, the video shows how confronting the archive can be a strategy of resistance: after Andy Candy has pointed out that there is nothing liberating in being an object, she leaves the prescribed death bed and walks out of the image—out of the archive”. Danbolt further argues that artists like Karlsson Lundgren set up “unpredictable encounters with history —encounters that are flirtatious and painful, funny and disturbing” This can also be exemplified in Karlsson Lundgren’s performance and installation (Dissident) Dance Actions from 2017, which is a reenactment of a series of protest actions made 1971—1972 by a group of Copenhagen gay activists in response to the criminalization of same-sex couples dancing together in public space. The original dance actions were only scarcely documented, but based on archival material and interviews, Karlsson Lundgren restaged movements and emotions together with choreographer Dinis Machado in a live performance, which also lives on as a video work.  In this way, the performance operates here and now as well as in extended temporalities through repetitions and material reproductions, creating a non-linear understanding of time. 

In We Feel a Desire for Caresses by Men (The Gothenburg Affair), the live performer portrays how bodies and sexualities were seen, shaped, and constructed—and how this related to criminological and “scientific” practices—through an affective and ephemeral performance in the present. The performer unites and embodies the elements of homophobic violence and surveillance with the friendship, pleasure, and affection of the queer community of the time. By moving and posing inside the authoritarian architecture of the police and the court with a gender queer appearance, and by quoting the forensic reports and court protocols in their own soft voice, the performer reclaims and eroticize the narrative of the Gothenburg Affair. At one point, they are reciting a witness statement about possessing indecent photographs while sitting in the police photo studio chair. The chair seems uncomfortable in pure wood and with dimensions a little too small. This prompts the audience to consider how the police id-photos can be seen as an involuntary and even violent genre. Significantly, the scenography includes anonymized versions of the supposedly indecent photographs confiscated by the police, but not the police id-photos. In this way, it is the latter that are treated as potential violations while the former become rather a source of empowerment. The illegalized photographs manifest something pleasurable and exclusive for the group of friends. It is also while sitting in the chair the performer recites one of the strongest passages in the piece: “I am a Roofer. I am a Pastry Chef. I am a Waiter. I am a Student. I am a Bundle Maker. I am a Corpse Bearer. I am a Kitchen Boy. I am a Journalist. I am a Mess Boy. (…) I am a young man – and I feel a desire for caresses by men.” This proclamation becomes an act of empowerment for the group as a whole.   

        Erotics as Resistance

In November 2023, a public monument by Karlsson Lundgren was inaugurated at Esperantoplatsen in Gothenburg. Gläntan (The Glade) references private and public spaces in the city where gatherings of queer communities were held at different times in history. The monument consists of three levels of floor plans which together create a meeting place and a stage. The bottom layer references the dance floor of the night club Touch which was one of the main public spaces for gathering of gay communities in the 1980’s. The second level outlines the kitchen of a lesbian and queer feminist collective active from the 1970’s until 2017, in which political meetings, social gatherings and other events were held. The final floor is the most private of the three spaces and draws the bedroom floor plan in the now demolished apartment of Josefin, one of the men targeted during the Gothenburg Affair. As public gathering for gay communities was criminalized until 1944, the private home of Josefin was one of the spaces in which the group of friends would gather to meet, listen to music, dance, and share experiences and desires. On top of the final floor, there are three pillows in pink marble with dents in them as if they were recently slept on. This figurative aspect of the monument can be seen as a memorial for everyone who has been affected by this history and the people that once populated the referred spaces. The pillows also become a reminder of the private lives and intimate desires that are put to public display and turned into politics throughout different times in history.  

In The Gothenburg Affair, the performer embodies the pain and shame of being interrogated, measured and documented. At the same time, the performance brings to life a parallel historical situation, which includes the joy, pride, and strength of an early resistance in the shape of the collective and in how the group of friends would defend the private sphere that is intruded upon. The work lets us understand the intricacies of the relationships within the group and how thought-out the gatherings were. In the archival material it is described how the group would refer to the community in terms of a “spiritual kinship”. While the language and the methods of the investigation present these details as evidence of criminality and pathology, the performance rather presents as expressions of a growing sense of self-assurance. The song Jazzgossen, that the performer dances to at the very end, is an early expression of a subculture of fluid gender roles. Originally written 1922, when the word ‘jazz’ was a modern addition to the Swedish vocabulary, the lyrics partly made fun of effeminate young flaneurs. The reappropriation of the song in for The Gothenburg Affair lets us imagine it being played during the gatherings of the group of gay friends. 

The sensuality and erotic aspects of the archival material and its narratives are conspicuously brought into focus through both the new and archival photographs and through different aspects of the performance. The villainizing documentation of the investigation is inverted in ways that bring to mind the black, lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde’s reflections on the power of eroticism. Lorde describes how it is the fear of our desires that keeps them “suspect and indiscriminately powerful” as it is the process of suppressing one’s truth that gives it strength (Lorde 1978, 90). When the energies of erotics and sexuality are released from the constrains that society has placed them within, they become rather a source of empowering energy, which both affects the experience of being alive in a basic existential and spiritual sense and becomes a potential source for political transformation. As Lorde shows, the dichotomy of the spiritual and the political is itself false, and a consequence of “incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge” (Lorde 1978, 90). She explains how a bridge between them can be formed by the erotic and the sensual, or by those “physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love, in its deepest meanings”. (Ibid.) From the archival material that Karlsson Lundgren appropriates in The Gothenburg Affair, erotic and intimate details are intensified, exaggerated or elevated to revert the judgmental attitude of the original material. As in many of Karlsson Lundgren’s works, the villainizing ways in which the queer community is presented in the archive, and which in the words of Lorde keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, are subverted and instead released as a power for transformation.   

*This essay is an edited version of the article “Erotics as resistance: the work of Conny Karlsson Lundgren” first published in Journal of Visual Arts Practice 2023.References

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 ©MMXIV Conny Karlsson Lundgren