When Bradford Nordeen returned to Los Angeles a few years ago after a five-year stint in New York City, he was struck by how L.A.’s LGBTQ identity had changed. Many of the social spaces he once frequented had closed their doors.
“What was gone in the short amount of time I was gone was really significant,” he said, attributing the changes to gentrification, the rise of online dating apps and the enduring impact of the AIDS crisis. “To be able to see it turn over so quickly is really kind of stunning.”
In place of many of those spots are now businesses with broader clientele and little to no knowledge of a building’s queer history. Nordeen however is on a mission to honor these legacies with Dirty Looks: On Location, a 31-day art, performance and film festival throughout July.
Founded by Nordeen, who also serves as its creative director, Dirty Looks got its start in New York as a monthly series of events. It makes use of art of all sorts to illuminate queer histories across the country by staging events in spaces that have a connection — knowingly or not — to LGBTQ communities.
With On Location in Los Angeles this year for the first time, the city’s queer sociopolitical history is being reasserted through events at places like the former site of black-owned disco Jewel’s Catch One, the former site of the Eastside lesbian bar Redz and Silver Lake’s the Black Cat, site of a historic gay rights protest.
Working with Nordeen to select the L.A. spaces and events — one for each night of the month — were 12 other curators: Marvin Astorga, Young Joon Kwak, Bret Berg, Suzy Halajian, Darin Klein, Ryan Linkof, Nacho Nava, Joe Rubin, Massive, Raquel Gutiérrez, Coaxial Arts Foundation and the Women’s Center for Creative Work.
Performance artist Ron Athey, who served as curatorial advisor for the project and has been involved in the LGBTQ social scene for decades, said he was initially hesitant about the scale of the idea.
“While the monthlong thing sounded overambitious,” he said, “it does address spaces that I know that are on their fifth ownership change.”
Gutiérrez added: “The ways in which space in L.A. is being contested, through gentrification and displacement, are impacting so many members of the queer community, from the ways in which developers in Boyle Heights are coming in and displacing people to the ways in which artists have come under fire with “art washing.”
“This project is about how we can still do art and be in critical dialogue with art, as well as the respectful occupation of the space we find ourselves in all the time,” she said.
On Location’s opening night event on Sunday celebrates the 50th anniversary of Los Angeles’ first gay film festival, named “A Most Unusual Film Festival.” Taking place at MacArthur Park’s Dynasty Typewriter at the Hayworth — near original festival’s location at the old Park Theatre — the event will feature 16-millimeter screenings of two key works from the original festival, Andy Warhol’s “My Hustler” and José Rodríguez-Soltero’s “Jerovi.”
This project is about how we can still do art and be in critical dialogue with art as well as the respectful occupation of the space we find ourselves in.
One of the centerpiece events on July 15 is A Peek Inside Circus of Books, one of the last chances to appreciate Circus of Books before it closes its doors after 57 years. Rachel Mason, the daughter of Circus’ longtime owners, will present selections from her in-progress documentary on the storied adult bookstore and former West Hollywood cruising mecca. It will be accompanied by a discussion with her parents, Karen and Barry Mason.
The closing night event, on July 31, is an outdoor screening of Japanese artist Gengoroh Tagame’s favorite American gay pornography from the early 1980s on VHS, including works by Joe Gage (“Heatstroke” and “Closed Set”) and John Christopher (“Centurians of Rome”). The event, held at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Echo Park, will feature exclusive documentary footage depicting Tagame’s long history with the organization and a discussion of Gage and Christopher’s impact on Tagame’s early career in gay manga and erotic art.
Other events of note include a presentation of work by video artist Cole Jupiter James and musician Elliot Reed at Jewel’s Catch One (now Union Nightclub) on July 9; a screening of T. Michael’s cult ’80s exploitation video “Venus Flytrap” at the Westside’s Cinefile Video on July 10; and a Wikipedia edit-a-thon at Cuties, a queer-owned and -operated coffee bar in East Hollywood, on July 30.
Nordeen hopes that by resurrecting some of these old works and recontextualizing spaces that might once have felt exclusionary, attendees will develop a deeper appreciation of queer history and art.
“It opens it all out so that queer people of more ilks than were welcome to the original spaces can go there,” he said. “In evoking a place and doing it within a framework like On Location, the access and number of people who feel welcome or have permission to go in there really increases.”
Dirty Looks: On Location
Where: Locations vary
When: July 1-31
Tickets: Prices vary