A Partial Guide to Camp: On Crossing the Border

Continuing his ongoing series on the aesthetics of Camp, Laurence Ross examines two recent Calvin Klein ads that have been scrutinized by the Russian government.

A still from a Calvin Klein commercial directed by The Apiary.

As a place, it is, of course, metaphysical, but also wonderfully, nauseatingly visceral. In short, camp is a country.

J. Bryan Lowder, Postcards From Camp

Step One: Take A Step Back

Camp, as a topic, is large—and much of the Camp aesthetic is about an inarticulate tension. Camp is an aesthetic of ambiguous intention that often goes right over one’s head; Camp is an aesthetic where one doesn’t know where, precisely, to begin. The same can be said for Russia’s pending investigation into two recent Calvin Klein commercials: The police are allegedly searching for evidence of the illegal promotion of “non-traditional sexual relationships,” the legality of the videos hinging upon Russia’s relatively new laws against “homosexual propaganda.” Complaints from concerned citizens drew attention to the advertisements, one of which had little more than 3,000 views on YouTube at the time. Had it not been for the rising controversy, the ads might have been missed, lost in an endless stream of media.

While it would be easy to simply dismiss this case as another instance of a Calvin Klein campaign enraging narrow-minded moralists—and there are decades of examples, including the even more recent upskirting controversy—these particular commercials are accused of being part of some larger agenda, of having a political motivation, of going against Russia’s nation state, and of being distinctly, counter-culturally queer. This case (and this essay) is really all about boundaries, borders, countries both real and imagined. To take a closer look, let’s take a step back.

One of the two commercials in question (this one shot by directing duo The Apiary for ck2, the brand’s newest unisex fragrance) begins with two boys typing at their computers. They pause and make eye contact. Cut to white high top sneakers stepping, with caution, away from a pink plastic laptop. A matching pink wall and a bright blue floor cue that we are not in Kansas anymore. The camera shifts to hands back at the keyboard, the sound of a whip thrashes, the hands freeze before slowly retracting. (Achieving distance from the familiar can prove to be difficult, especially when one has been comfortably engaged for so long.) After taking in the surroundings, my Camp eye now recognizes where we are—we are firmly in the country of Camp.

In his introduction to the anthology Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality, David Bergman outlines four points most critics use to define Camp’s notoriously inarticulate territory. To summarize, Camp is a style of exaggerated artifice in tension with mainstream culture and an aesthetic that is necessarily “affiliated with homosexual culture, or at least with a self-conscious eroticism that throws into question the naturalization of desire.” In other words, the territory of Camp is necessarily queer and, if not necessarily political, at least staunchly resists cultural norms.

A commercial directed by The Apiary for Calvin Klein’s unisex fragrance ck2 is being considered “homosexual propaganda.”

Step Two: Disconnect

Let’s examine the periphery of the territory in question: Blue headphones are popped from a pink plastic Walkman; an electric fan of the same Pepto-Bismol shade is unplugged, leaving the attached streamers, previously fluttering, limp; a finger tentatively reaches toward a pink plastic facsimile of an iPhone before a growling hand snatches the finger away by the wrist. The playful artifice, the phone that is not a phone (think René Magritte), the surreal color scheme and minimalist set that emphasize the significance of the objects, the presence of objects out-of-date and therefore out of place. Yes, the viewer is disconnected from the reality in which the viewer typically resides. But does that mean that any viewer can recognize this stylized reality as definitively queer (or definitively propaganda) within this landscape of disruption? Bergman specifies: “[T]he person who can recognize camp, who sees things as campy, or who can camp is a person outside the cultural mainstream.” Who, exactly, can locate the country of Camp? Where are the landmarks? What should we look out for?

The second Calvin Klein commercial under investigation causes much less of a disruption from our normal reality and therefore doesn’t stand out in the manner of The Apiary’s ad. Directed by photographer Ryan McGinley, this ad shows four pairs of young people gallivanting around Puerto Rico—jumping off of a pier, racing with secrets around corners, leaning like trouble against a building, making out in front of a pit of flares and a bonfire. (This rebel-youth montage is reminiscent of a Levi’s ad shot by McGinley in 2009, with boys and girls jumping fences, flexing their muscles, and racing through fireworks amidst a reading of Walt Whitman’s poem “America.” This campaign, however, was warmly embraced for its nationalism.) In this second Calvin Klein ad, slow-motion camera work, a shallow depth of field, and blurry bursts of light lend a meticulously constructed feeling of spontaneity to the minute-long advertisement. Presumably, the ad is being attacked by the Russian government because two of the four pairs are same-sex “couples.” Two girls flash oncoming traffic from the safety of a pedestrian bridge and playfully place their heads on each other’s shoulders; one shirtless boy wraps his arms around another’s chest and they exchange a glance before speeding away atop a motorcycle. Only the mixed-sex couples kiss on screen, however, and Calvin Klein has stated on their YouTube page that the female pair are sisters. (Of course, attempting to see the commercial through the lens of a homophobic Russian police investigation means reducing/defining these eight people by their presented genders and apparent sexes. Rough terrain, indeed.)

In this police investigation, McGinley’s commercial seems a bit more difficult to decidedly place in the territories of “non-traditional sexual relationships” and “homosexual propaganda.” However, if the Camp aesthetic is, as Bergman suggests, necessarily queer, proving the commercial is Camp would also prove its queerness. Does this second ad stand in opposition to Russia’s nation state?

My fairly developed Camp lens says no upon immediate glance, but as Camp so often demands, I’ll do a double take and use Bergman’s definition as a guideline. The slow motion and shallow depth of field give us “style that favors ‘exaggeration,’ ‘artifice,’ and ‘extremity.’” While the riotous, freedom-loving tone of the advertisement has the undertones of rebellion, that tone may not quite qualify as “tension with popular culture, commercial culture, or consumerist culture.” Perhaps most importantly, does this second piece exhibit “a self-conscious eroticism” and call into question “the naturalization of desire”? Like much of McGinley’s photography, there is something inherently erotic about his ad for Calvin Klein, and—particularly since the piece is meant to promote a fragrance—that eroticism is palpably intentional, self-conscious. I suppose the real question, framed by Bergman’s words, that determines the legality of these Calvin Klein ads within Russia’s anti-homosexual propaganda law is: What is a “natural” desire versus a “homosexual” desire?

Another ck2 advertisement in question is directed by photographer Ryan McGinley.

Step Three: Chill

The Apiary’s commercial, on the surface, asks this question more directly: Outerwear removed, then white t-shirts shed, a spritz of ck2 permeates the now-still air. Nostrils dilate, a diaphragm rises, a chest swells to accommodate the lungs. Artificial ingredients be damned—this desire is real. The borders of the body expand, the boundaries of personal space blur, and, in the midst of this highly-stylized pink-and-blue set, our senses have been genuinely, sensually, (naturally?) disturbed.

Like the scent of fragrance on the skin, Camp is both artifice and not; Camp is exactly what it appears to be and not; Camp is simultaneously the mask of the person (the manufactured fragrance) that is also a true extension of the essence of the person. Atoms lift off the body to attain an otherwise unattainable reach. The borders of Camp are uncertain, permeable, effervescent. As a territory, Camp is easily invaded—which also means Camp can easily invade, emerging suddenly on a computer screen in Russia, the security of heteronormativity instantly compromised.

Herein lies the difficulty in investigating the legality of an image and determining an image’s meaning: Setting up the question of desire as a binary is profoundly problematic. If the Camp aesthetic or a unisex fragrance (or a Calvin Klein campaign) can articulate anything clearly, it is precisely that there is no concrete line. There is no definitive beginning and, definitively, there is no end. As a photographer, McGinley has had an interest in this territory of ambiguity for some time. In a 2012 essay, Chris Kraus writes that the “boundaries between McGinley’s subjects, the natural world, and each other seem to dissolve, evoking the halcyon 1970s when, unburdened by debt or career, countless young people simply traveled, and an ‘artistic life’ could be lived without being professionalized.”

Do these dissolved boundaries between two people of the same sex implicitly convey homosexual desire? Or is the desire to play, to embrace, to exchange, to connect simply natural? The distinction between natural desire and homosexual desire is just like love itself: a frothy hallucination of certainty that only exists when two minds are in agreement. A delightfully frightening folie à deux.

A still from Ryan McGinley’s ck2 advertisement.

Step Four: Reconnect

Unlike most countries, Camp relishes having hazy, ambiguous, porous borders. Here are some field notes as I watch the end of a Calvin Klein commercial (beginning again and again—this is what’s happening here, on the front.) Light a match in this foreign territory. Words written or tattooed on the body convey the question of desire at play here: Do (close an eyelid) you (lift up a shirt) want (pull down a sock) to… (peel down your Calvins). The response? The boy breaks the fourth wall—borders down—looks directly at the viewer, and smiles a Mona Lisa smile. The boy doesn’t give a direct answer because he doesn’t have to, and presumably the other boy gets it. (Re: connection.)

Let me begin again with the main issue: The Russian police are allegedly searching for evidence of the illegal promotion of “non-traditional sexual relationships,” the legality of the commercials hinging upon Russia’s relatively new laws against “homosexual propaganda.” The mere thought of Russian police sitting in front of a computer screen and investigating a Calvin Klein fragrance commercial for evidence of queerness is in and of itself a tragicomic moment of Camp, a playfully serious paradox. Laws that prohibit art are confounding, not because there are images that governments don’t want the country to see, but because by banning an image the allure is immediately increased. Inherent in the act of trying to ban or destroy an image is the notion that the image has power—presumably enough power to overthrow some ideal the government wants to promote or protect, or even overthrow the government itself.

That people—and by extension, governments—lash out at images is comic as an ultimately ineffectual action, since the thought behind the art will surely surface again. But this lashing out is also tragic as an action that can damage or eliminate a specific image—not to mention trigger unpredicted danger to the people the image allegedly represents. The history of the deliberate destruction of images is extensive, though here is a personal favorite for its tragicomic flare: In 1914, Mary Richardson began hacking the naked back of the woman depicted Diego Velázquez’s The Toilet of Venus, c. 1647-51, with a meat cleaver. She allegedly committed this action (in this case, also a crime) in support of suffrage, in defense of a fellow suffragette, and in protest to “the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.”

Now, images scroll by on our vivid screens as fast as our fingers can swipe and “like” them—our minds, if not dulled, rewired. However ridiculous a ban against art may seem, the simple fact that these bans happens over and over again is encouraging, as art has evidently not lost its profound ability to disrupt our everyday. (Would any government want a disrupted public?) Whether a plaster leaf is formed to cover the genitals of a Greek sculpture in a moment of puritanical fear or the naked Venus is violently attacked, the body more than anything else seems prone to cause a stir, and therefore to pose the greatest threat to order. As Susan Stewart writes in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, “A great deal of cultural regulation is required to privatize the erotogenic zones and to prohibit the projection of their pleasure within the domain of public space.” The Internet—a public space indeed—substantially complicates the task of maintaining these borders of regulation, as the Internet is also a limitless country that can easily invade the sanctity for which any government may strive. And in the case of these two Calvin Klein commercials, we see bodies engaged in an intimacy that is not easily labeled or corralled. We see a desire for—and an act toward—a human connection without defined limits, a borderless engagement.

Can two lithe boys spritzing ck2 in an imagined reality cause such gaping as to constitute a viable threat, or qualify as “homosexual propaganda”? As with any fragrance ad, allure and desire are central to the success of the campaign. When one of the boys begins to reveal words written and tattooed on his body to the other, a tentative, voiceless question is lobbied in (body) parts: “do you want to…” Writing on the body, like perfume, is a provocative form of communication. Stewart remarks: “The tattoo creates not depth but additional surface…it is easily read and exposed.” Just like a fragrance, a tattoo is an artifice of the body that also serves as its extension. Just like Camp, a tattoo allows for a multiplicity of meaning, space for uncertainty but also space for intimate connection.

Intimate connection can be a dangerous endeavor, regardless of the parties engaged. But daring acts are also essential for our adaptation, our attempt to understand one another, and ultimately for our mutual survival. As the Russian police attempt to shield its people from certain manifestations of intimacy, they limit intimacy. When certain intimacies are perceived as a powerful threat (and therefore bordered, contained, or eliminated), all forms of intimacy are likely to suffer a loss. Love is often inarticulate, tense, and misunderstood—much like Camp itself. The aesthetics of Camp thrive on ambiguity, but also, as Bergman reminds us, the aesthetic requires “a person who can recognize camp” for the artistic gesture to be complete. (And Russia’s laws certainly aim to sever this completion, this connection, before it can be made.) Camp is the art of crossing a line; Camp is the art of striking a match and seeing if someone is there to blow the flame.