Arcade Project: Your last show at Art During the Occupation was called Chase. What is the meaning of the title? What are we chasing, or what is being chased?
John Hanning: I was thinking about Pac-Man, and how the goal of Pac-Man is to kill. And the goal of AIDS is to kill, and Pac-Man and AIDS both chase people. For a long time I felt that I was chasing and being chased. I don’t feel like I’m being chased anymore, and I don’t really feel like I’m chasing anyone or anything, I’m just moving forward: I’m in control of my health somewhat. Back when AIDS was happening in the 80’s, I came here and I was working as a sex worker and AIDS was happening, but I was like: “Oh, that won’t happen to me!” But maybe subconsciously I was also chasing it.
AP: When I saw your show, it was the last exhibition at Art During the Occupation, and when I arrived the gallery was transformed. And I was being led through these maze-like spaces by you.
JH: When you play Pac-Man, you’re in a maze, so I wanted to take the public into the maze that I remember from playing the game in the 80’s. I wanted people to feel what I felt when I was a runaway and a sex worker and scared to death, but also having some fun. And the way I thought that I could do that was by having the gallery black, you know, getting rid of those white LED bulbs. I spent about a year developing or testing lights and curtains to create the glow that I remember seeing beaming out of the Pac-Man machine.
I played Pac-Man every day, soon after arriving here, at a cruise bar. I mean it wasn’t a hustle bar, it was just a bar in the village. Every day I would play that game and that light would beam out of the machine, and so I wanted to recreate that glow. I found flagging tape, which is something that Tony Feher, who died of AIDS, used in his work; his estate is now represented by Sikkema Jenkins. But just the flagging tape wasn’t enough for the glow. I needed a light source. Then I found these colored LED bulbs: I tested different ones and I finally got the right colors to go with the tape—purple, pink, and black light—and when everything hit I saw that glow that I remember beaming out of the machine. I wanted you, and everyone who was there, to feel that and to go back to another time, New York City in 1983.
AP: Tell me a little more about New York City in 1983. I definitely don’t know what it looked like, and I’m sure it’s nothing like it is today, because today we have the cleaner, sanitized, more corporate version of everything.
JH: It was dirty. It was rough and it was scary. And it smelled, but it was lovely. I spent most of my time out on the streets at night, because most of the tricks were at night, and I learned that you had to be careful. You had to walk in the street, not on the sidewalk, and it was dark. It wasn’t lit like it is now.
AP: Wait, what could happen to you on the sidewalk?
JH: People would hide in-between cars. They would jump you and throw you against the building, rob you and then run off. But if you were in the street you had more of a getaway. You could run.
AP:So you arrived in ’83. How old were you?
JH: Oh God, 21? 22?
AP: Okay. And so you’re in the big city, an adult, but you’re a hustler?
JH: I didn’t know I was gonna be a hustler. I knew there would be sex, but I didn’t think it would be like the situation that I found myself walking into. I thought, I really did, that I would get to escort people to Studio 54.
AP: You took the word escort literally?
JH: Yeah. I thought there would be some of that, and there would be some like well, I’ll have sex with some of them. But I’m not gonna have sex with a rich woman. It’s only gonna be men. I read an article in the advocate, a few months before making the leap, about the life of a gay male escort here and he was really open about everything. And I thought: well I can do that. I can go to someone’s house and be their pet for the night, and let them do whatever and I’ll do whatever, and I’ll get paid. That’s how I can get out of Arkansas. There were some really weird scenes that I got into. There were a lot of married men with photos of their wives next to the bed and …
AP: They didn’t turn them over or anything?
JH: No. I mean I’m fucking this Indian man down on Lexington Avenue on these red satin sheets, everything in the room was red, and there was his wife next to the bed, their wedding photos. There were lots of wedding photos. Lots of men that wanted cum in their ass or wanted just to fuck a guy. And it was always the odd hours. It was either the middle of the day when the wife was at work, or late at night while she was out of town. I never asked questions. I saw the photos, and I was just like: okay, well I’m getting paid. So I got paid.
AP: I assume that with sex work you see a different part of people than they offer up to the public?
JH: Yeah. I mean I met some freaks. I met a guy that lived not too far from here who was married and straight and conservative, and he had a beautiful pottery collection, but he was verbal in the things he would say while we were having sex.
AP: Did he yell horrible conservative talking points at you?
JH: No. He was yelling, as we were having sex, that he wants to fuck a baby and that he loves to fuck babies. I’m like: oh, God.
AP: Oh God. Did that just make you insta-soft?
JH: Well I was like: just cum, I gotta go. It was always quick and easy with him, but he was just twisted. He had the American flag on the desk, and your Ronald Reagan stuff, and it was just like: but you’re fucking another man! There was some weird shit, and plus there was heavy-duty drugs. Not in my life, but there were some bizarre scenes. It was survival. I was not going back to Arkansas.
AP: And what was the hell that you left?
JH: My stepfather is a conservative Republican. He grew up with Mike Huckabee. They’re still friends. I’m gay, and they lived their life by the Bible. I was a Martian.
AP: What age were you when you came out to them?
JH: I was out in high school, junior high school, but we never spoke about it until I was leaving to go to school in Memphis, and my mother told me she knew what was going on. I said: what’s going on? She goes: you’re a homosexual. I was like, well yeah, I’ve always been. And she got biblical. So I said well, if it’s that bad, then forget about me. Then I hung up on her.
AP: Now it makes a lot more sense, being in the Pac-Man maze. You led us through, telling your story, and stopping and talking about the significance of certain pieces or objects within this maze. And there was one part where we all stopped and you stripped down changed into a hospital gown. What is the significance of that?
JH: I didn’t want to be in the hospital. I thought I’d rather just go somewhere and die instead of ending my life in a hospital the way my friends did. When I walked into the emergency room, my clothes were taken off and a hospital gown was placed over my body. That was my welcome to the hospital. But when I take my clothes off it’s more than just revisiting that memory. It’s also calling out for a lover, calling out to be loved and to love. In 1995, when I was in that emergency room, I just wanted to be held but there was no one to hold or to hold me. Taking my clothes off today, whether it’s for a performance or for a photograph, it’s calling out for someone. I could easily go on an app and find someone, but I don’t wanna do that.
AP: I was just thinking about technology which is supposed to bring us together, but really keeps us apart because we’re all in our own little spaces on social media. But then you get to these apps and you’re right: A lot of people are on there, I think, because just a need for connection, but the only thing the apps are offering you is sadness.
AP: But it is a need that goes beyond just sex, that people are looking for on Grindr or Tinder. I think a lot of people just want to have some contact and be held.
JH: That’s what I’ve learned. I mean: I have my cat, but I want to be with someone. I wanna wake up with them, I wanna go to bed with them, I wanna read books together. And it’s also, I think, important to show what the body of someone who’s survived AIDS looks like. You don’t have to look like death. You can look like you’re functioning and just going out and living your life, and it’s a different way of looking at AIDS. I think so much of AIDS in the art are always about death and not about living. And yeah, so that’s the meaning of taking my clothes off and putting on the hospital gown.
AP: Let’s talk about the last room: We’re going through this dimly-lit maze, inside of a Pac-Man game, and suddenly at the end there’s a lot of light. And there’s this one image, the child, and that image is repeated with many variations.
JH: The last room has more light because of all those stories that I shared in this maze. I made it, and we all have struggles and there’s light at the end of the tunnel, as corny as that may sound. There’s something to look forward to. I couldn’t build a wall, so I had curtains shielding most of the light from the rest of the gallery. So it’s about going forward, moving forward, and in a sense the chase is over.
AP: I met you at Spring/Break Art Show in 2017, at an exhibition curated by Christopher Stout. And then Chase was the last show in this iteration of Christopher Stout’s gallery, Art During the Occupation. What is next for John Hanning? What projects are coming up?
JH: I’ll be showing new Mixed Media Collage works and the new edition of my full color risograph book Unfortunate Male at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA/LA Art Book Fair, April 12 to 14, Table R54/Raw Meat Collective. Oher artists showing in the exhibit are Andrew Boos, Staci Helms, Bryson Rand and June T. Sanders. Friday night, April 12, there’s a party, LA ART BOOK FAIR AFTER PARTY, hosted by Kyle Quinn/Raw Meat Collective at Bar Franca launching Dirty Looks Volume 4 and the new edition of my book.
Cover Image: John Hanning, photograph by Ventiko.