The Pornographic Arcades Project: Adaptation, Automation, and the Evolution of Times Square (1965-1975)

Photo courtesy Bruce Hamilton

Photo courtesy Bruce Hamilton

An Illustrated lecture with Amy Herzog, professor of media studies and film studies program coordinator at Queens College, CUNY
Date: Friday, August 6
Time: 8:00
Admission: $5
Presented by Morbid Anatomy

Walter Benjamin, in his fragmentary Das Passagen-Werk, illuminated the resonances between urban architectural structures and the phenomena that define a cultural moment. “The Pornographic Arcades Project” is a work-in-progress, seeking to build on Benjamin’s insight to ask what a study of pornographic peep show arcades might reveal about the cultural imaginary of the late twentieth century.

Motion picture “peeping” machines have existed since the birth of cinema, and were often stocked with salacious titles. Public arcades devoted to pornographic peep booths only began to appear in the late 1960s, however, although once established, they proliferated wildly, becoming ubiquitous features in urban landscapes. Outfitted with recycled technologies, peep arcades were distinctly local enterprises that creatively exploited regional zoning and censorship laws. They became sites for diverse social traffic, and emerged as particularly significant venues for gay men, hustlers, prostitutes, and other marginalized groups. The film loops themselves often engage in a strange inversion of public and private, as “intimate interiors” are offered up to viewers, at the same time that the spectators are called out by the interface of the machines, and by the physical structures of the arcades.

Peep arcades set in motion a complex dynamic, one that sheds light on wider contemporary preoccupations: surveillance videography and social control; commodification, fetishization, and sexual politics; debates regarding vice and access to the public sphere. Less obvious are they ways in which the arcades subvert far older fascinations, such as technologies of anatomical display and the aesthetics of tableaux vivants.

Amy Herzog is associate professor of media studies and coordinator of the film studies program at Queens College, CUNY. She is the author of Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film (Minnesota, 2010). She recently curated an exhibition at The James Gallery, CUNY Graduate Center on the dialogue between pornographic peep loops and contemporary art practices; you can find out more about that exhibition, entitled “Peeps”, by clicking here.

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