Before the demolition of a former peep show theater on Spenard Road, artists are taking over the building for their own positive and ambivalent expressions of sexuality.
For decades, the only sign on the shop said, "Adults Only." Late last year, two women bought the property to build a book store, café and performance space to be called "The Writer's Block." That change, neatly symbolizing the transformation of Spenard, inspired the artists.
Over the last week, I hung out with artists bringing life and energy to a building with a dark, exploitive past. I was intrigued, excited and slightly troubled. There's nothing glamorous about what happened in those booths. It's too easy to forget the people whose lives put them in such a place.
The event happens the next three Fridays, from 6 to 8 p.m. on each day. Somehow, it will combine a neighborhood gathering with food trucks and kids' activities with an evaluation of Anchorage's troubled relationship with sex. Prostitution is a big part of our city's history.
This all came together in a wonderfully Spenard way.
Bruce Farnsworth and a loosely affiliated group of artists were involved with a national grant for $3 million to include art in community development, received by Cook Inlet Housing Authority. The group decided to do an art event gathering residents around the former sex shop. The exhibit would reflect how Spenard is changing.
But when artists proposed ideas for the space, almost all focused on sex, not redevelopment. Farnsworth decided to roll with it. The parking lot will be G-rated, with plenty to do, and there will be a sign warning parents to check out the exhibit before taking children in.
"That peep show room is a hard thing to ignore as an artist, so I can understand people's responses," said Sheila Wyne, who alone is making a piece about community change and not sex.
But even Wyne's work will invoke the shop's secrecy. Her moving diorama will be viewed through a hole in the exterior wall. Since the building is coming down as soon as the exhibit is over, the artists are turning the whole thing into art.
James Temte and Nils Lane are painting and repainting an outside wall with a series of three street-art murals of neighborhood people Temte got to know: first, a former dancer from a Spenard club; the next week, a mural of pregnant women; and in the final week, a group of children.
"They're going to be rocking kids," he said. "They're going to have attitude, and they're going to own it. And the kids I chose, their parents used to live in Spenard, and they had this rough life, but now [their parents] have been to treatment and rehab and they're living better."
Chad Taylor will cut pieces off the building as the show progresses, opening its secrets to the air. He has been modifying the booths for the individual artists; there are spaces to show video art, to exhibit a zoetrope animation of a pole dancer, for an actual pole dancer to give a performance, and a space for a confessional.
In the odd spaces behind the walls, Taylor found evidence of what used to go on there, including vials of drugs, needles, used sex paraphernalia, and even a man's wallet with a driver's license still in it. And someone's family photo.
There's risk of insensitivity in reinterpreting this sad place with sex-positive messages coming from people of a different class from those who labored here. Perhaps signaling that tension, a sign was vandalized in front of the art group's converted church at Spenard Road and 36th Avenue. Someone came at night with a tall ladder and changed the sign from "Adults Only" to "Spenard Only."
The artists incorporated the phrase "Spenard Only" into T-shirts for the event. They still don't know who changed the sign, but they are leaving it.
Farnsworth said reclaiming sexuality in positive terms is a good metaphor for the way Spenard is being reclaimed by a new generation. Homer video artist Michael Walsh used his booth to put smiles into voyeurism, with a cheerful performance by burlesque artist Bobbye Triplett playing with long, narrow balloons.
"Something that takes the creep out," he said. "Because sex, when it's done in a positive way, there's nothing like it on this earth."
Fiona Rose is trying to represent the intimate exchange the space was used for. She will sit in the confessional dressed only in a robe, singing improvised songs based on concerns expressed by visitors.
"There's definitely going to be moments when I feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, I'm going to be tired, or want to stop, and I'm sure there are people who worked in this space before who have felt that way," she said.
Vered Mares met some of those people. The bookstore was her idea, which she hopes to build over the summer and open in the fall. When she and her business partner bought the building, she spent many hours trying to scrub it clean. She met the customers and workers who still showed up at the door.
At first, Mares was embarrassed. But then she started trying to engage. She said she makes no assumptions about anyone, but a woman who came in one night seemed to be a streetwalker looking for a customer.
"She is a young mother, she lives nearby, she's had some pretty tough times, she was looking to clean up her life, and we told her some places she could go for help," Mares said. "We talked about her concerns with disease."
After the woman warmed up, she walked back into the night.
"They were denied the opportunity to live the lives they wanted, so they were living the lives that they have," Mares said.
When the bookstore is here, these conversations will change. Before that happens, Mares said, the exhibit will, "really let people know, we own the past. We know what it was. But we're not bound to it. We're not inextricably tied to the past. We can make something new."
Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.
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