I’ve been in town, like I am every week, a regular meeting at the arts centre. At the end of the meeting at which we’ve decided nothing and changed the world even less, I head back to my car. I’ve parked two streets away and the most direct route is down a narrow one-way street, little more than an alley.
The centre isn’t in the bad part of town, exactly, but it’s on the edge of the city core, a location where some of the cheaper and more grimy nightclubs rub up against the second-hand musical instrument shop, the launderette-cum-internet café, and the high-priced flats constructed out of an old office building as part of the city regeneration programme.
I know the cheap and grimy nightclubs intimately, I’ve bought stuff at the music shop, washed clothes and surfed at the launderette. But they’re not what attract my attention.
There’s a door recessed into a brick wall, like a fire exit from an old textiles factory of now-uncertain use. And stuck on and around the door are small pieces of paper, about the half the size of a business card. They have QR codes on them.
You know about QR codes, right? The small square black-and-white chequered patterns you see everywhere from nightclub posters to advertisements to airline boarding passes. They encode information, anything from just a name or stock number to a website address or, for all I know, a short story. Ironically the art centre had just done an exhibition based on a QR code theme.
So, there are lots of these things and that makes me curious.
One of the exhibits had been this: visitors pin a QR code on a big map of the city which is on a gallery wall. People photograph the code with the camera in their smartphone, which will usually have an app to unravel the information. The information is a link, the link takes you to a website, to a place on the website where the person posting the code has also written a blog entry about what happened to them or what they did at that place on the map.
The idea is to view the city through other people’s eyes.
Now, here we have the codes placed in an actual, physical location instead of on a map. So I snap a couple of dozen of them with my mobile phone’s camera.
Don’t check them until I get home.
And what’s there is… well, not shocking. I’m not easily shocked. But certainly adventurous. Every QR code links to a website page; every website page shows activity happening in exactly the spot where I snapped the codes. All the activity is, by someone’s definition, sexual.
There’s flashing and nudity. There are point-of-view shots of fellatio and cunnilingus, both straight and gay. There’s sex up against the wall (and presumably a third person taking the pic?). There’s more ambitious sex, a woman bent at the waist being fucked while sucking a guy off. There’s complicated bondage sex involving two women stripped naked and tied together, three guys playing with them. There’s a guy being, as best I can tell, either pegged by a woman or fucked by a T-girl. There’s a woman in full pony-play kit and one nude except for a hood. There’s a woman in a cat outfit, licking milk from a saucer; and in another shot, a guy wearing nothing but cheap angel-wings and heavy work boots, installed in the corner in a person-sized birdcage.
And then there are the videos.
Allowing for some of the people being in multiple shots, or taking turns at taking pics, this amounts to probably fifty people having used this one alley for sex in a timeframe of, according to the dates given on the website, a couple of weeks.
I’m jealous. I’ve been missing out. Not only that, but I’ve been caught unaware, because if you want to know what’s happening in the seamier and fetishistic side of this city I normally have my finger on the pulse, and this is something I only stumbled across by accident.
The following week, after the meeting, I choose that alley to walk down even though, this time, I’ve parked my car in the opposite direction.
Nothing. The area’s been cleared, cleansed, power washed.
I retrace my steps back to my car.
I had to park about ten minutes walk away, in an area that was once a huddle of small factories. When they moved out, one of the old factories became a pool hall; another, until it burned down, was a swingers’ club. And yes, I went there a few times. Now most of the buildings are vacant, boarded up, waiting for redevelopment.
My car’s on a street that’s a dead end, though there are alleyways off to either side. Two woman stand on a corner. They’re not prostitutes; they don’t have the whore pose or the strut, they don’t look like they’re looking for johns. But one of them gives a sharp whistle and beckons me over.
“Can you take a pic of me and my friend?” she asks. “I’ve set it to auto.” Hands me her phone, points to the button.
By the time I’ve taken three steps back and let autofocus do its work, they’ve both removed their coats to display ropes around their bodies, a style known as the karada. And they’re kissing each other. Well, consuming rather than kissing.
“All done.” They’re so into what they’re doing it’s actually difficult to give them back the phone.
“You know what a QR code is?” one asks. “Look for a small sticker right on this corner, maybe tomorrow.”
“Nice ropework,” I say casually. “Did you do it yourselves?”
I get a smile and a laugh, but no answer.
But the pic’s good, when I go back the next day to find the QR code. Along with a dozen others within a few yards of the spot.
I find myself seeing the city from another point of view. Charting the flux and crackle of dangerous sex. Charting its variance, its standard deviation, its significance.
I’m reminded of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. One of the characters, Tyrone Slothrop, is an American soldier in wartime London. He has many sexual encounters, each one taking place at a location that is the subsequent target of a V2 rocket hit. Do his sexual exploits somehow, clairvoyantly, predict the rocket strikes or actually direct them?
I walk the streets, find the traces of sexual energy. I chart their distribution. I wonder what kind of detonation is encoded there.
An arts centre near me did host an exhibition similar to the one described in the story above (yeah, it’s fiction, though it would have been cool if it wasn’t). In the exhibition, though, the codes linked to a website that displayed paintings and drawings of different parts of the city. As far as I know, no one has used QR codes in exactly the way the story describes – yet. But I wouldn’t be surprised to discover it’s been done.
However, QR codes have been printed on condom packets as part of a safe sex promotion, with the users encouraged to follow a link embedded in the codes to post the location at which the condom was used. It’s been done in Sweden (Simplyzesty.com), and in the US, in and around Seattle (see the Time magazine article about it). The Time article links to a map and the code shown at the top of this post also links to the map, which is searchable by gender, type of location, outcome etc.