THE ARENA HEALTH CLUB
THE ARENA HEALTH CLUB
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The Arena Health club was a gay bath house, founded, at least on the books, in 1968 in Pittsburgh’s Soho, or Uptown neighborhood. There are a lot of names for this area, but it’s a small strip of land between a mountain and a cliff that overlooks the Monongahela River.
It really never stood out much in this neighborhood of tall and overpainted row houses. With a name meant to evade it’s true purpose, (a safe, discreet place for queer men to meet for sex) It was hidden away in an unassuming yet somehow stately three story house built in the 1890s. A massive, utilitarian concrete addition at least twice as long as the original brick house was tucked away behind the more domestic facade on Forbes Avenue, and made up most of the view from my bedroom window.
Only when the building was being finally demolished in April of 2015 did I realize what this building really was. Within the debris were mangled metal lockers decoupaged with yellowed scotch tape and men in jock straps from glossy black and white magazines, as well as hundreds of VHS tapes of gay porn. I’ve digitized some of these tapes, and they all carry with them visual proof of the fire damage and decay they have been subject to.
The Arena Health Club ceased operation in 2002, after a fire, on Valentines Day, caused over $125,000 of damage, killing a young man. The building sat dormant for 13 years, passing from developer to developer, until it was finally demolished August of 2015.
I plan on meeting with men who used to frequent the club, taking them to the site where it once stood, and bringing them back to my studio, where I will interview them while they draw floorplans of the building from memory. These accounts, along with relics I rescued from the debris will give us insight into how this institution functioned over it’s 34 year life.
How did this building go from upper class private home, to boarding house, to finally, bath house. . . a building that had to hide its true purpose? Photography, film, memory, even data can really only circle around an experience in the end really only pointing out that something is missing.
These installations mix digitized VHS tapes with physical relics from the site as a way of activating meaning hidden within these objects and memorializing the lost.