Bitter HB2 dispute basis for provocative restroom art show in Charlotte

Artists respond to HB2 with bathroom art

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Public restroom access is the most polarizing element of North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2, so it’s with a touch of sarcasm that Charlotte’s McColl Center for Art + Innovation is partnering with Charlotte Pride this weekend to present an exhibit visible only in restrooms.

The center – located in a former church on North Tryon Street uptown – has 10 bathrooms in all, and seven are included in “Open Occupancy: Artists Respond to HB2.”

Visitors will be presented with a pamphlet at the door, guiding them from one artistic john experience to the next. And should they need to use the restroom while admiring the art, they can do so without fear of violating a law, since all the restrooms are not gender specific.

Humor is definitely part of the concept, says Armando Bellmas of the McColl Center. But there’s a serious side, which is why the McColl Center has arranged for attendees to be able to register to vote on site during Charlotte Pride. The exhibit will remain up through Sept. 10.

“Such a big deal has been made of bathrooms with HB2, but we wanted to highlight the fact that it doesn’t just deal with bathrooms. It’s bigger than that and we’re encouraging people to dig deeper,” said Bellmas. “It’s about wages, discrimination, workplace issues and so much more.”

The N.C. General Assembly passed HB2 in a single day this year specifically to nullify a Charlotte nondiscrimination law that, among other things, allowed transgender people to use the restroom of their gender identity. HB2 nullified all municipal nondiscrimination laws in the state, many of which offered protections to lesbians, gays and trans people.

Critics of Charlotte’s law insisted it would allow heterosexual men to invade women’s restrooms, locker rooms and showers, but proof of that has yet to materialize from cities in other states that have passed similar nondiscrimination laws.

Opposition to HB2 has steadily grown across the country and that is expected to drive up attendance at this year’s Charlotte Pride festival and parade, which runs from noon Saturday to 6 p.m. Sunday on Tryon Street.

Artist Jason Watson, who is among the artists involved, came up with the idea of a bathroom exhibit, which he says is both a political statement and nod to the fact Charlotte Pride attendees need a safe place to go to the restroom during the festival. (The parade queues up around the McColl Center on Sunday morning.)

He says the idea was to create an artistic response to a political issue. One artist, he says, did so by turning a restroom into a tiny disco “inviting people to come in and turn the restroom into an individual party space.” A glittery disco ball is included, but patrons must use their phones to supply the dance music.

“I wouldn’t call the exhibit whimsical. It’s overtly political,” Watson said. “It’s more of a celebration of individual people and individual space. Viewers have to help finish the pieces with their own interpretation and imagination.”

This marks the first time Charlotte Pride has partnered with a major art institution, which organizers see as yet more proof of the event’s growing influence and financial impact. Attendance (120,000 last year) and corporate sponsorships have risen steadily, including financial backing from the city’s banks and major corporate employers. A Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority study says it had an $11.9 million economic impact last year.

“This partnership with the McColl Center, a mainstream organization, is taking our mission to make visible the lives of LGBTQ people to the next level,” said Matt Comer of Charlotte Pride.

“I absolutely love the idea, because it’s a creative way to tackle a topic that has been so divisive. Art is a way to bring people together to have good, meaningful conversations around issues that are polarizing. In this case, that art is sitting in a mainstream gallery, where it will be seen by people from all walks of life.”

When to go

The McColl Center at 721 N. Tryon Street has extended hours during the 2016 Charlotte Pride Festival & Parade. It is open noon to 5 p.m. Friday, noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and 11 am to 5 p.m. Sunday.

The Charlotte Pride Festival’s opening ceremony is 12:30 p.m. Saturday, and events continue to 10 p.m. Saturday again from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday on South Tryon Street. The parade is Sunday, from 1 to 3 p.m.