It's Said That the Back Country Is Not for the Faint of Heart, but What About Art?
REFLECTIONS ON THE NEW FANTASIES OF PLAY
The sun made its way through the thick stand of ponderosa giants. Above their shaggy needles, the morning’s rays irradiated the toothy peaks of the eastern Sierra Nevada but the lifts were not yet running on Mammoth Mountain.
My friend John and I made a breakfast of oatmeal and bananas in his grandmother’s carpeted duplex, the ’70s décor mostly unchanged from when it was built. As he boiled water for our pour over coffees I stopped pretending and acknowledged to myself, for the umpteenth time, that I was and always have been enamored with him. Ever since we met in a college seminar that read Ernest Hemingway’s “Cross Country Snow,” I’ve looked at him the same way George from the short story about skiing looks at his friend Nick Adams, wishing that they could “just bum together” on the slopes until their dying days.
And I acknowledged to myself that I also have always looked at him the same way James Salter looked at the lone skier in “The Skiing Life”— “going down where it is steepest and the snow untouched, in absolute grace, marking each dazzling turn with a brief jab of the pole—there is always him, the skier you cannot be.”
Once, days after college graduation, encouraged by life’s new commencements and tequila, I told John that I had always been in love with him as we drunkenly waited for Bob the Drag Queen to perform at a bar. She never did perform. He told me he loved me too, but not in the same way. But, caffeinated and reacquainted two years later in California, we were ready for turns and so we pulled on thigh, rear, and chest hugging long johns, swishy ski pants, flannels, and coats. It was a day for skiing.
The feeling of getting ready to ski is almost as good as the skiing itself. It’s a sensation that defies language, though it’s contained loosely by the slang word “stoke” (as in, we are stoked to rip the bowl.) For an accumulation of gargantuan forces await—on the slopes mortals can become little mountain gods who schuss, huck, send it! and fly across a some of the wildest edges of the world’s peaks, casually, securely, and with shear placidity. Chairlifts glide us up thousands of feet and futuristic (but simple) gear keeps us warm from descending blizzards as we swiftly transcend a wilderness and distance that is otherwise unfathomable with our solitary human bodies.
Because of all of this wizardly magic, the skiing life, the lifestyle of stoke (much like surf culture) has amassed its own lingo that attempts to name everything from varying snow conditions to sensational feelings, often in the form of erotic, sensual, and sometimes pornographic double entendres that attempt to capture the indescribable ecstasy of a good run.
There are face shots, which is when the snow is so deep the white powder sprays you in the face with every turn. There is the after bang, which is steazily stomping out a mean landing after hucking a sweet grab. Then there are rippers, rails, fun boxes, ski town housing called brah-thelss.There’s cruising, butt draggers, and size queen bros talking about snow saying things like “I prefer 6 inches or more.” Most of these words reflect their lusty old boy’s club origins, the traditionally straight-male sports culture, but (not without good reason) my mind orients them towards the homoerotic.
The first gay bar I ever went to in Los Angeles was in West Hollywood. What a true, but drastically dull declaration. It was my second date with a man and the bar my date had chosen had fluffers in a back room on Thursday nights that helped self-volunteering contestants take close up photos of their whangdoodles and butts to be developed and hung on a clothesline above the bar. At the end of the night, the crowd voted with applause and shouted at the photo they liked best. The rooster (or hiney) that received the loudest response claimed a bottle of booze, a free bar tab, or some other libatious prize.
My first immersion in the queer scene in the City of Angels was overwhelming. I naively expected trendy cocktails, sophistication, polish. But life had other amusing plans, and instead of Manhattans, I was greeted by go-go boy boners as I stepped through the red velvet curtains of the entryway. I didn’t know it at the time, but as I waited for my date, I saw cats dripping GHB into sodas, pornstars parachuting molly, and large groups of sniffling white nosed men coming out of the small single occupancy bathrooms in groups. Later on I caught word of an after-party in the Hills that was being carefully curated by an intimidatingly attractive slew of six-packed men who would leave the bar together in catty lockstep and wait for Uber XLs and second winds.
The date arrived late but we somehow found each other in the sweaty, shirtless masses. He was handsome, curly haired, and tattooed and we shouted small talk over the thump of Basement Jaxx as he asked what I like doing. Closely in his ear so he could hear, I told him that I was visiting, that it was my first time in a gay bar, that I was from Colorado and fulfilled its crunchy stereotypes and that I’d been skiing since I was just a little jasper. He lit up immediately and told me that he loved skiing too. I smiled, relieved for common ground. Another man who shared my favorite recreation of skiing, but who wasn’t destined to be one of my straight, unrequited loves as John had?! What a dreamboat. Excited, I asked the date what his favorite mountain was and with a little arctic fox smile he looked at me, pulled out a little baggie and a key, and repeated himself: “I love skiing, too.”
Curated orgies in the Hills fueled by cocaine and GHB aren’t the only pockets of Los Angeles rummaging for their own little slices of Eastern European inspired hedonism. There is nothing new, nor fantastical about these gay spaces: they follow in the lineage of circuit parties, underground house/techno raves, and heavily selective house parties of party boy socialization. If anything, gay nightlife reached its revelrous plateau years ago. Cities now chase other cities trying to push the envelope, and so the underground DTLA warehouse parties lusting for Berlin’s Berghain and Amsterdam’s The Church are really only copy-catting, dark rooms and sexually liberated dance floors that spin the same juddering techno beats as their European influences.
At some point the concept of play in mainstream culture became synonymous with these liberated spaces, and then the inevitable process began that turned the “festival” into cultural and commercial juggernauts, as seen in the ascent of music festivals like Lollapalooza, Tomorrowland, Coachella and all their little cousins. They became safe havens for absolute tomfoolery to the point where they are parodied by The Onion as “New Music Festival Just Large Empty Field To Do Drugs In.” These festivals, like the failed Fyre Festival, are proof of the millennial pursuit of experience and “play” they believe they deserve, even if it’s expensive, and even if they won’t really remember it.
The types of drugs come and go but they are always the end goal: moon driven tides of MDMA, GHB, ketamine, and methamphetamine. Always, new ones popping up left and right: How about some meow meow? How about some 251-NBOMe? Hell, why not mix them all together and then huff some poppers? Currently the DEA has identified over 200 designer drugs (drugs made in illegal labs without known substances) that mimic opiates, LSD, marijuana, stimulants, PCP, and many more.
All of these designer drugs are exact doppelgängers of their more familiar predecessors, so when they’re bought on a gay cruise, on the Coachella polo fields, or in the darkness of a rave, it’s impossible to differentiate them without testing. Here is the darkness of pursuit of the newest and most intense fantasies—numbing ourselves over and over again with the unknown to chase the possibilities of another mind altering evening. Is the new fantasy a permanent escape into a k-hole of dissociation?
The other play is of course sexual, fantastical, and ever evolving. San Francisco’s “Folsom” and its even “dirtier little brother,” a street festival called “Up Your Alley” continue to push the envelope of progressive street events led by a strong queer contingent allowing kinkier more mainstream events to pop up left and right. The same thirst for kink permitted the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise to prosper, BDSM aesthetics to infiltrate fashion lines like Dolce and Gabbana’s 2017 February line, and a national amateur porn film festival, “Hump! By Dan Savage” to draw crowds around the country every year.
The diverse sex lives of many minorities are finally being revered and validated, kinky, heterosexual, queer or otherwise. This is wonderful. And the stats are complementary to what we already knew but were too scared to say. Of a sampling of 400,000 on OkCupid, 71% of men and women said they were interested in kink. With more and more events, spaces, and parties catering to a kinkier clientele, at the very least, our coastal cities seem to be going in the direction of Eastern Europe’s sex-positive hubs despite our country’s puritanical establishments.
While this is all well and good, free loving and liberating, something else is happening simultaneously. A pendulum shift. A slight change in wind. It is the alternative to the more extreme alternatives. Something so specific some might not even name it fetishization. For as we escalate to more sexually liberated (and perhaps, at times, narcissistic) lifestyles, non-unionized individuals have already begun clinging to more simplistic, overlooked connections where cuddling, intimacy, pretend relationships, and generally vanilla sex practices are becoming fetishized themselves. In short, some are ejecting from the kink tornado in search of another fantasy, a kind of artificial intimacy. The most classic example of this comes from Japan, one of the fourth largest consumers of porn (in 2017), which maintains a culture of “cuddle cafes” (which began around 2012) where men can pay up to 6,000 yen for an hour of cuddling with a woman, nothing more.
And as I write, I am scrolling through Grindr and Scruff in Los Angeles (both gay social apps with hookup oriented stigmas, though I say, they are what you make of them) and I come across user: Cuddles?, 27, “Big spoon for little” and user: “Tighty Whities?”, 34, “Looking for a bud to just rub tighty whities with, fruit of the loom, hanes, etc”, as well as a message I received from user: (Bicep Emoji), no age listed, “yo. could b fun 2 to get brunch go for a hike and roleplay bfs for the day?” And lastly, from Craigslist, subject: Let’s Go To Coachella, 33, “Looking for a festival boyfriend I can share the experience with...no strings after the weekend is over.”
Of course, these fantasies are a minority of the greater population of the apps and meeting websites who are looking for run of the mill, anonymous, no strings attached “fun” and “play” with other like minded and bodied men. But that doesn’t mean this incredibly specific minority is irrelevant. For today’s minority may be the next majority, straight or queer. Consider the phenomenon of “Pretend Internet Boyfriend” or PIBs (named by writer Fran Tirado on Them), which could become “Pretend Internet Girlfriend” but PIGs doesn’t sound very nice, so perhaps, “Pretend Internet Lover.” These are the people we will never actually meet, but who we text all day long across vast distances, found by sliding into DMs, or out at a bar once while visiting a new city, or through a friend of a friend of a friend on Facebook. They are wonderfully convenient because we can get the virtual attention (and maybe some nudes?) of a relationship, without any of the work.
So while some are compartmentalizing very quick anonymous encounters anywhere from mild to wild, this other very specific set is fetishizing intimacy in longer, no strings attached (or so they say) “relationships” that involve acting and portraying deep levels of affection that are usually only achievable as the rewards of real work, and long term relationships. So, is a small subset fetishizing intimacy because affection seems so fantastical in our modern world as to be only accessible through playacting with a stranger?
I am a failed erotic novelist. As a fun little side hobby, I once tried to write a steamy book called “Face Shots” (naturally) under the purposely stupid pen name of Stokey McSenderson. The work in progress detailed skiing, mountain town life, wilderness, piping hot sex, spruce stands, hot tubs, long johns, and romance while attempting to add a literary flair that I believed many gay erotic novels have lacked in the past.
What I found is that I’m a sappy bastard and that I wasn’t actually interested in writing about sex at all. I was interested in writing about carpe diem experiences that existed between two men, whether they were homosocial, erotic, or sexual. For whatever reason, I’d get to the point where they could have sex, but I had already written about the two men moving through the vast snow-blanketed backcountry together so sensually and gracefully and in such camaraderie that anything else seemed cheap.
I also found that any sexiness I tried to portray got lost in my vernacular for nature. While my characters might have shared a kiss in the glades of a double diamond, writing about the smell of the blue spruce and the warble of the grey jay would end up stealing the scene. As someone who was raised in the ponderosa stands, moved to Los Angeles, and escapes to the Sierras and great desert basins, I’m as enamored with landscapes as Georgia O’Keefe, though I paint my skies much larger. The runs of a ski resort, the peaks of a cirque, and the dribble drop boulders of Joshua Tree are thus the escape from the pressures of gay pressures, yet at the same time remain informative sites for my own queer penchant for camaraderie—places that, for now, I don’t mind going at alone.
The novel showed that like any decent millennial, I am a real sucker for experiences over things. If I’m going to spend, it is going to be on ski passes, National Park fees, planes, and gas to get me to the wildest pockets. While not all experiences are equal, let me be rich in pow days and hikes, archipelagos and deserts. But instead of the millennial contingent repurposing the backcountry as unsubtly inserted sponsored content, Instagram advertisements for Moon Juice and Fit Tea, let me document the landscapes by reminiscing in my memories.
The novel also showed me that my generation has built our recreation on the fear missing out, or “FOMO” in the parlance of the times. Others’ highlight reels are easy comparisons to snuff self-worth from experiences in exchange for wildly face-tuned and pornographic portrayals. For instance, the photos of a beautiful woman or man holding the hand of the picture taker as they gamboled off into the mellow break of Bora Bora.
Of course, neither George nor Nick from Hemingway’s “Cross Country Snow” were millennials, and it may be frivolous to compare them to the tech addicted generation, but the characters possessed a genuine post-war penchant for experience that wasn’t a slave to narcissism, popularity, or FOMO. The two men valued their escapades over their possessions. Many millenials will claim the same, and many times they do, but more often than not they are actually valuing the intangible: things that don’t exist at all. They are valuing the third person broadcast (and its reception) instead of their first person narratives.
What George and Nick savored was every second of the their ski runs together. No stopping for photos. No Boomerangs of their wine cheers-ing. No stories, no posts, no #ads, no DM sliding. Were they happier for it? We don’t know, but they did value the brisk rush, the mountain frolic, the funicular car, the long chairlift rides side by side, powder snow, fresh tracks, goofy, toothy smiles, après-ski libations, and one another so fondly that they were actually at a complete loss of words for their experience and relationship.
It wasn’t until this past weekend skiing with John on the monstrous slopes of Mammoth—Cornice Bowl, Solitude, Sanctuary, Blue Ox, Bristlecone, Arriba, Climax, and Oops—that I made the switch from empathy to sympathy for George’s feelings for Nick. While skiing is at times “too swell to talk about,” affection never should be and for that I pitied George for never speaking his mind, for snuffing his very essence and desire in wearisome, minimalist-but-divulging iceberg theory dialogue. What I do admire is both men’s ability to enjoy the present joie de vivre as they looked steeply into their foreboding futures: George’s fear—a life without the companionship of Nick. And Nick’s—the straightlining responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood. They may not have shared a future partnership, but they shared the final run together and I imagine that, like John and I, they carved love letters to their existence on the mountain’s flank with the calligraphy of their turns.
Written by Miles Griffis
Neha Choksi is a Mumbai and Los Angeles-based artist working in performance, sculpture, video, photography, painting, and sound. Her work will be featured in the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. 2018 biennial exhibition.”
"For Made In L.A. 2018, I am currently working on how best to convert “Every Kind of Sun,” the intergenerational performance work I showed in early February at the Dhaka Art Summit, into an installation with a two-channel film including the drawings made by the children there. The Hammer presentation will also likely include a single channel film based on “The Sun’s Rehearsal/In Memory of the Last Sunset,”(shown here) and the set of 40 drawings as annotated prelude and epilogue to “Every Kind of Sun.” Keeping in mind that children make up a third of the population of Bangladesh,“Every Kind of Sun”seeks to break down hierarchies by privileging the child’s viewpoint. “Every Kind of Sun” features ten children—7 to 12 years of age—and ten adult professionals. Each child and adult pairing performs on a different day. In Fall of 2018 I hope to attend elementary school for an entire year as a student. It brings up so many questions of life and growth, who we are and who we want to be, how we civilize ourselves and co-create selves." -Neha Choksi