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Cruising on Hampstead Heath with two radical artists

Susanne Oberbeck aka No Bra and Slava Mogutin join forces to create a short film exploring dogging and censorship – watch it here

If you know anything about London, you’ll know that Hampstead Heath has got a rep for cruising. And while hooking up in public is still frowned upon in some areas of society, for LGBTQ people living in a world where queer sexual expression is often kept behind closed doors or within the confines of gay bars and clubs, it can represent a real act of liberation.

Cruising is a subject explored by artists Susanne Oberbeck aka No Bra and Slava Mogutin in a new collaborative project titled “I’m Your Man,” which takes its name after Leonard Cohen’s 1988 song. The three-minute short film is about the idea of the moral police and actual policing of queer spaces, as well as gender inequality when it comes to public nudity – Mogutin recalls how a woman was recently arrested in New York for being topless in public as a reminder of the sexism that still permeates our society.

The two artists, who have both walked for cult NY label Hood By Air, each admired the other’s work from afar long before meeting. No Bra was introduced to the Russian image-maker’s work through stylist Lotta Volkova and wanted to use one of his photos (of “a guy gagging another dude with a sweaty sock”) for the cover of her first single “Munchausen”. He agreed and a collaboration was born – Mogutin appeared in one of No Bra’s music videos, while No Bra provided the sound for the Post-Apocalyptic zombies performance that he did with Bruce LaBruce at the Hole Gallery in New York. “I think we were simply destined to do a track together!” he says of the “I’m Your Man” project. 

Here, the two premiere this film and discuss cruising, censorship and how you can get away with more “cock, ass and tits” in the UK.

Can you tell us about this film? What’s the concept?

Slava Mogutin: It’s about searching for an alternative queer space outside of societal norms that is different from the institutionalised (and heavily regulated) gay venues with a complicated code of conduct. It’s about claiming the public space and making it your own. It’s about breaking the walls and rejecting the sterile “gay norm” promoted by the mainstream consumerist culture.

I vividly remember my first cruising experience as a teenager in Moscow, spiked by the sense of danger and adrenaline rush from breaking the law. It was in the Alexandrovsky Park right next to the Red Square at the time when homosexuality was a criminal offence with a five-year prison punishment. I remember going there as a gay virgin and watching events unfold, sometimes seeing gay guys being arrested or brutally bashed just based on their looks. Despite all those unpleasant associations, years after my exile from Russia, I still find cruising very romantic and stimulating. It’s a healthy alternative to claustrophobic and restricted gay venues and the culture of online dating, which renders all senses and personalities useless.

Susanne Oberbeck: I think the original song makes fun of expectations towards men in relationships, so we took that idea further, by me playing a female or sexually ambiguous person it visualises a desire for change and takes the piss out of double standards in relation to sex and morality, and what is considered acceptable for women. Being naked, wanking in public, cruising for sex – somewhat unacceptable and jarring. But it’s also just about being prepared to play any role the other person wants in order to win their love.

Where did the idea come from?

Susanne Oberbeck: I dated a gay guy so I got to investigate the differences regarding sex and romance on a psychological level, and how they are connected. I’ve always identified as part male part female, while being attracted to men, so the question of what exactly defines a person’s sexual attraction in relation to gender or role-playing has always been interesting to me. That all played into the decision to film ourselves cruising. Of course, there’s something romantic about this type of situation, because it’s purposely detached from things like social status.

Slava Mogutin: It’s not often that you see females cruising for guys and being topless in public spaces in the broad day light. In general, I find male gay subculture very misogynistic, so in a way it’s a post-gay film where we both play equal parts – partners in crime in pursuit of desire and romantic ideal – in the midst of the actual cruisers who just happened to be there on that beautiful sunny day. I’d say it’s not just a music video but also a social anthropology study across gender and class divisions.

Why did you choose to shoot it on Hampstead Heath?

Susanne Oberbeck: My friend Rckay had taken me to this spot a few times at night so I was familiar with the location. Hampstead is a really posh area but obviously people come from all over the place, and I think a lot of class masquerading goes on. One time we went there, there was a guy in a security guard outfit and we got talking and I thought he could be a university lecturer. And, of course, since it was dark I convinced myself that I could pass as male. So it goes with the theme of the song, of someone saying they would be anything the other person wants them to be.

Slava Mogutin: We did our research and both agreed that Hampstead Heath would be an ideal location. My dear friend Marko was our consultant, he has an extensive cruising experience and told us some anecdotes about the regulars who go there night after night. Also that’s where George Michael was busted for cruising some years ago, so we had a good laugh thinking about retracing his steps. Back then he defended ‘cottaging’ on the Heath, saying it was ‘nicer’ than picking up men in bars, and I couldn’t agree more!

“You can definitely get away with more cock, ass and tits in the UK than US or Russia for that matter. Let’s call it progressive. God bless the Queen!” – Slava Mogutin

Do you think society’s attitudes toward censorship are shifting? If so, in what direction?

Susanne Oberbeck: I think censorship at the end of the day is about power structures and money. Gay people, non-white, transgender or women’s bodies and activities are being policed so that these groups remain more marginalised. So even if there are some advancements in some of the laws – for example, women are allowed to be topless in the street in New York and other states – now private companies like Facebook can impose their own censorship rules that override these laws, and continue to make it more difficult for any of these groups to go about their business.

Slava Mogutin: I’ve been struggling with censorship throughout my career first as a poet and journalist in Russia, then as a multimedia artist in the West. My work is still being routinely censored as “pornographic,” “obscene” or “unsafe.” The online censorship of queer imagery is more rampant than ever and the corporate leash seems to be getting tighter and tighter, threatening our fundamental rights and freedoms. These policies inflict pain on our community by destroying any authentic, unfiltered documents of queer sensuality and sexuality. Instead we’re being served with a castrated and homogenised substitute promoted as the “gay norm.”

How do you think attitudes toward censorship in the UK compare to those in the US?

Susanne Oberbeck: I think in the US there is a weird anti-sex sensibility that people refer to as “puritan”, and I think it informs how some of these companies make their decisions.

Slava Mogutin: You can definitely get away with more cock, ass and tits in the UK than US or Russia for that matter. Let’s call it progressive. God bless the Queen!